Unsuspecting Treasures – Nancy Bartlett and Rev. Anthony Makar

Nancy Bartlett

In 2012 I went to Mexico – my first time ever out of the United States or Canada  – and I went for seven weeks … alone, no one’s needs or wants to accommodate but my own.  I lived in a pretty small room so cleaning took all of 10 minutes a week.  My days were spent in Spanish classes and walking.  Meandering really, going where my heart and curiosity called me.  And I discovered the gift of time. Not only having time but using my time to notice. To notice the sound of the birds, the clang of a gate, the chatter of children headed for school, the music in bodegas and the cars going by.  Notice the plants growing through cracks in sidewalks, notice the cracks, the sand that had shifted the shape of beaches during the night, the construction that had started, the construction that had stopped, the dogs that were everywhere.  And the smells. Seaweed and dead fish, family meals, fragrant flowers and stinky garbage.  Noticing the people, acknowledging they were there with a nod or smile or greeting.

Everyday 10 miles of walking and noticing.  I fell in love with the gift of life and of time and found again a part of me, a core of my being I thought was gone forever, someone I used to know.

At the end of the 7 weeks I was distraught. I knew how fragile experiences were, how quickly they fade once we are home, how easily we resume our lives as if we had never been away.  I walked the beach on my last morning, grief stricken, already feeling the loss, how could I take this treasure home?  I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted more.  And out of nowhere, on this deserted beach, appeared an elderly man. He walked right up to me, gently looked in my eyes and smiled, and handed me this small, small shell and walked away.  I don’t know what that was about, but I instantly knew this shell was enough.  I had enough.  It was enough for me to have seen the sunsets, heard the birds, smelled the flowers, felt the sand between my toes. It was treasure enough.

And that is the treasure I came back with and determined to give my grandchildren, Abby, Max, and Kara.  This was some of the legacy I want to pass on.  So we began our treasure walks, plastic bags in hand, no destination, as slow as they wanted to go, looking between sidewalk cracks, seeking bugs between blades of grass, snails in ponds, duck feathers, acorns, sticks, dandelions.  Some we put in bags to bring home, yes even dead smelly snails and slimy algae, and spread them out on the table to admire again.  Some we appreciate and leave behind – puffy clouds, odd tree roots or vines, butterflies, warm or cool breezes.  Right now, they think the treasures are the bits we bring home.  I know, I hope, someday they will realize the real treasure was of course the time together and inclination to go slow in this life, to go where our curiosity leads us, and notice the world around us.  And how much their Nana loved them.

Rev. Anthony Makar

For our summer services, our UUCA Worship Team wanted to expand the number of voices speaking from the pulpit. And so, several weeks back, I reached out to some folks to see if they’d want to participate. I said, “If your house were to suddenly catch on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door? We seek to celebrate some of these things and shine a light on what it means to be human.”

“Do you have any stories about your treasures that you’d like to share?”

Some days later I received this reply from Nancy: “My attitude toward treasures is tainted a bit by my experience over five months of cleaning out the home of a friend who was a full-blown hoarder. When everything is a treasure [and she followed that with “dot dot dot”…. There’s a lot in that dot dot dot …]” And then she said, “I also take my grandchildren on Treasure Walks where we stop and notice treasures around us – acorns, blue skies, funny twigs, bugs, etc.”

We heard the Treasure Walks story, which was just wonderful. But what of the one about hoarding? I was not expecting an angle like this on the “Treasures of our Lives” theme to come up. It surprised me.

But that’s diversity for you.

If you give time to it, time to notice and wonder, it opens things up.

The email conversation with Nancy, and the unexpected turn it took, was itself an unsuspecting treasure.

She went on to say that her hoarder friend (the longtime friend and singing partner who recently passed away—our sincere condolences, Nancy) had only a 12 inch pathway leading from the door to the bathroom, with a short jag to a recliner. “It had been sobering for sure,” says Nancy, “and difficult because my friend knew I was doing it and knew it was necessary but still I had to make decisions over and over about what was a treasure I should keep for her and which ones must go. As she said, only she knew how much something meant or what her plans were for it. It was HER stuff, her identity, her security and while she repeatedly said she trusted me and was grateful, it was very difficult for her. “ Nancy then said, “She hadn’t slept in her bed for 15 years because the room was so full, she couldn’t get to it.”

Reading all this was electricity. It jolted out of me one of my own memories, of my mother and her obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Of how, years ago, when I was growing up, she would wrap all kinds of things—whether important or not–in paper or plastic and stack them at the foot of our beds, bigger things at the base and progressively smaller things on top, so that they ended up looking like pyramids. In time the pyramids got so big that there wasn’t enough room on our beds for both her bizarre creations and her children. So we children had to go looking for other places to sleep….

I shared a little of the story with Nancy, and she replied: “To live through that as a child is something I cannot imagine.  This whole subject of treasures is fascinating. As I sit here ruminating it is clear to me that treasures are not necessarily carefree.  Some of our souvenirs and treasures can certainly be mementos of difficult times we survived.  A steering wheel from a crushed car, an orthotic device.”

And that’s when the “unsuspecting treasure” story I want to share right now came to me.

That’s a nametag of mine from thirty-two years ago, when I worked at Pizza Hut. I was there because I had taken a leave of absence from Texas A&M University, during my sophomore year.

Maybe I should begin at the beginning.

I emerged from high school as Student Council President, in the academic top ten of my class, and founding nerd or geek or both of a group called the “I. Q. Booster Club.” I was also a medical doctor’s son. It was the only career path I had known all my life, and it was simply unimaginable to me that I could follow any other—even though, in another compartment of my brain, I wondered about what it would like to be a minister. But this is what we do—we compartmentalize; we experience a balkanization of the brain; the different parts don’t talk to each other. So I entered college with the purpose of going to medical school. And why not? The sky was the limit! Blithely and without any concern in the world, I signed up for the harder science classes—honors chemistry and honors calculus—to start off with a bang.

But it turned out to be all bust. My head couldn’t follow the professors; my head couldn’t follow the numbers or the experimental protocols. Other students seemed to be understanding just fine, but I wasn’t understanding anything, and this is where the offended perfectionism of my inner Student Council President, Top Ten achiever, I. Q. Booster Club founder, and doctor’s son made my life a living hell.

The one comfort in this time was my discovery of the used bookstore in town, to which I would go frequently just to keep moving even as I felt the heavy, paralyzing feelings of shame and worthlessness intensify. It’s me, so of course I’d go to the sections on philosophy and psychology and religion and art and poetry; and while, on the one hand, this was amazing, on the other, it was crashing the religious worldview that I had come into college with. I came into college as a Church of Christ fundamentalist. I worshipped at Texas A&M Church of Christ. All my friends were from the huge college group Aggies for Christ. But that didn’t stop my sense of God from changing. The liberal education I was getting from books just gave strength to suspicions and feelings that I had been having for years but could not articulate well, or connect the dots.

But the dots were connecting now.

That’s why, at the start of my sophomore year, I stopped going to church and stopped responding to phone calls and letters from friends asking me about what was happening, what was going on. They would have excommunicated me anyway.

My entire community of friends—gone.

I also changed my major to psychology. Perhaps that might be a better fit. But even in psychology I encountered some very technical stuff—namely, statistics—and once again my brain flailed about like someone who’s never been taught how to swim. Plus I ended up developing this very strange grudge against my professor, whose name was Dr. Shine. Big man, small hands, high-pitched voice, acted like anyone who couldn’t get statistics was a complete idiot, and he would write with chalk on the board and then pull out a handkerchief and obsessively wipe and wipe and wipe and wipe and wipe and wipe his hands and tell us every time how he was allergic to chalk dust.

I’d think, Now here’s a guy who needs some therapy…..

I refused going to statistics class. Exam days came and went. The Student Council President in me, the Top Ten achiever, the I. Q. Booster Club founder, the doctor’s son—those voices of perfectionism–they were screaming in their panic.

But another part of me had had enough, and that’s the part I obeyed.

It would be the first time I ever failed a class.

And here too was yet another instance of how everything seemed to be falling apart. My entire life, I had labored under the perfectionism that said to me: If you fail, the worst thing imaginable will happen to you. But look here. I did fail. And I did not die, nor did dire things happen. The F on my report card was not some bullet to my brain, but merely a mark on a piece of paper, and I still got up every morning.

It is no small thing when long and deeply-held dreams fall apart. The dream of being a doctor. The dream of one-way, one-truth, one-life spirituality, in all its comforting certitude. The dream of a life that is pure and perfect and there are no messy mistakes that others might point their fingers at and go SHAME ON YOU.

Whether the dreams are helpful or not, it is no small thing when they fall away. I had to do something to stop the free fall. There was only one thing to do, really. Take a leave of absence, regain my bearings, perhaps find a place to work and just re-establish simple rhythms in my life that had nothing to do with school or religion or being the best.

Just surrender to the completely unexpected place life was taking me. Let things fall apart. Let the space clear somewhat. See what might emerge that was beyond anything I could know in that messy moment.

When I got the job at Pizza Hut, and was handed a blank nametag, it didn’t feel right to put my regular name on it, in this time of falling apart. Maybe the source of the hesitancy was exactly the part of me that refused to return to statistics class and wanted the experience of failure. The part of me that wanted things to fall apart.

Can that even be so? That a part of ourselves might know that this IS a time to fall apart, even as other parts are working 24/7 to maintain the illusion of perfection but they’re working so hard that they don’t see that the big picture of what’s happening is not sustainable and ought to be blown apart?

I called him “Snake,” which I have come to know as a symbol of wisdom and healing but back then, thirty-two years ago, it was just because the name felt dangerous and made me laugh….

And all “Snake” wanted me to do, for the remaining months of my failed semester, was cook in the kitchen.

I’d pour flour into the big mixing machines and make the pizza dough.
I’d spin fat rounds of dough in the air—
toss them up, catch them falling down—
place them in pans, ready to be smeared with sauce and then covered with whatever the customer wanted—
slide them into the oven—
retrieve them when they were baked and beautiful–
crunch down on them with the cutter to make eight slices—
slide them into boxes—
send them on their way to be eaten.

That’s all “Snake” wanted me to do, and that’s all I did. Over and over again. For months.

My life went quiet. The perfectionism went to sleep.

And then it was time to sign up again for a new semester. I signed on as a philosophy major. The grades of A that I got from every one of my classes from then till I graduated seemed effortless and really, beside the point. I went on and got my graduate degree and taught philosophy for almost ten years. I shifted things up, went to seminary, became what you see before you now.

I am convinced that failure makes for success.

I am convinced that there are times that Snake must take over, and a deep darkness takes over our lives, and the parts that are like machines running nonstop start to smoke, then seize up, as if they had been starved of the necessary oil to keep them running. There is smoke, there maybe fire, then there is stillness, and it has all fallen apart, and it is a mess, and now what do we do?

Maybe to make pizza, very calmly,  very calmly, until the next thing emerges…

And THEN: we soar.