Cups of Sugar, Connectedness, and The Heavenly Library

When I was a kid, one of the most cringe-inducing phrases in my house was “Scotty?  Come here!  I need a favor!” Ugh.

I would stubbornly set aside whatever mission-critical project I had going – usually making faces in the mirror, practicing the Moonwalk, or defacing friends’ pictures in the school yearbook - to go help Mom.  She would be standing in the kitchen, elbow-deep in some recipe that she was anxious to get on the table by 6:00.  In my house, dinner time was 6:00.  Every night.  Not 6:01.


I don’t care if you just broke your collarbone, suffered a ruptured kidney, and collapsed a lung while playing “Tackle The Man” with your friends.  You’d better have your buddies drag your sorry carcass home by 6:00, and then be ready to use your one good arm to help set the table.  So sacred was the 6:00 ritual in my house that, much to Gabby’s irritation, I still get a little antsy if we aren’t setting out the plates by 5:58.

But enough about my neuroses.  Back to mom.

Mom’s request was usually due to some poor planning in the food prep department.  She’d be on step 4 of an 8-step process to make some crazy pie, cake, or casserole of questionable origin.  That’s when she’d realize we were fresh out of some key ingredient.

“Could you go to the neighbor’s and borrow some sugar?”

So, armed with an empty, stainless-steel measuring cup, she would send me to survey the neighbors in search of whatever we needed.  I don’t know why it bothered me.  Maybe it’s because I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s space?  Maybe I just lacked confidence?  Maybe I was just afraid to ask?

The funny thing is, it didn’t matter whose house I was visiting.  It could be Mrs. Cunningham, the mother of one of my best friends.  A woman who I saw nearly every day.  A woman who once picked me up from school when I was sick.  A woman who loved me enough to warn me not to eat that plate of Long John Silver’s fish sticks after she picked me up from school.  A woman who still loved me even though I puked up those fish sticks all over her new carpet in the hallway.

No matter who I went to beg, I still felt nervous, even though I was never turned away.  Whether it was Mrs. Cunningham, Mrs. Lewis, or Lamar, the truck driver from across the street, they always welcomed me in and gave me what I needed.  Then, I would take the hour-long walk home, stepping painfully slowly like that Tim Conway character from the Carol Burnett show, trying not to spill a single granule of sugar.

Ah… the memories.

One day, I hope to pass on the joys of the “ingredient walk” to my own children, much as I have already passed the mantle of “can you bring me the remote?”  Handing down the tradition of household chores ranks just below “Seeing my kid cure cancer” as one of the pleasures of parenting.

But things seem a bit different today.

Is it just me?  Our neighborhoods seem more spread out.  Our houses are bigger.  Our lives even seem busier.  I never remember needing a day planner when I was seven.  But today, you can buy one at Target with a Thomas the Train theme.

This all makes us appear to be a bit more distant.  Those tight neighborhood relationships that happened by accident now must happen on purpose.  In the past, living close by someone meant you were close to someone.

Though I’m much more confident now, I feel more intrusive than when I was six.  Borrowing a cup of sugar would seem odd, somehow.  Borrowing a lawn mower or a Weed-Eater?  I might feel like I needed to bring a contract with me.  It’s not that people are any less generous than before.  It’s just that we seem less connected, even though we’re connected by technology more than ever.

I now carry my mailbox in my hand.  I literally make phone calls to friends from my pocket.   We can download e-books.  This whole concept makes me feel old.

And I’m only 37.

That’s right. Now you can get your Judy Blume in digital form.  But it’s not the same.  A good book, especially a kid’s book, is like a fine wine.  Wine is more than just grapes.  It has hints of oak, citrus, and gooseberry from being aged in just the right barrel.  A good book is more than text.  It needs to have hints of stale milk, kid sweat, and shepherd’s pie from being aged in the school library.  That’s the book experience.

But I lost it long before I had my smart phone.

Before we went to Guatemala, Gabby and I were living in a bit of a bubble.  Or, shall I say, a bigger bubble than we live in today, complete with a man cave.

We were DINKs (Dual-Income, No Kids).  As DINKs, we actually had “extra” money.  Today, we’re SITCOMs (Single-Income, Two Children, Outta’ Money).

Back in the DINK days, we would go out on dates and eat at restaurants that didn’t have neon menu boards or place mats you could decorate with your own crayons.  We would have genuine conversations.  We would go shopping, often at book stores, where we could browse the shelves for hours on end.  We would find interesting titles and add them to our home library.  We had shelves of books.  If someone told us about a really cool author, we’d just go out and buy their latest novel.

Then something happened.

Like that “Frozen Man” that they discovered in the arctic not long ago, we rediscovered that Prehistoric relic called the public library.  And it was like we’d stumbled upon the greatest discovery since canned beer.  What makes it so great, you ask?

The library is where yesterday lives.  The yesterday you love.

If you haven’t been to a public library recently, I would highly recommend a “Stay-cation.”  New libraries can be quite palatial, filled with story times, children’s plays, and special events.  It’s kinda’ like Disneyland, without the rides and somewhat frightening, mute, globe-headed cartoon characters.

And the smell.  I wish they could bottle that smell.  The smell of books.  I love it.  It brings back memories.  Good memories.  In fact, it’s hard to think of any bad memories of the library.  Probably tough to find anyone who hates the library.  Or the smell of the library.  It’s probably because we associate that smell with something Heavenly.  Something bigger than us.

Consider this:  If the library could talk, what would it say when you rang the doorbell?

“Hi!  Come on in!  Want a library card?  All you have to do is prove that you live somewhere nearby.  No application.  No drug test.  No judgment.  You’re a member, just because God put you on the planet.

If you’re homeless, come on in and use our computers.  In fact, we have folks who will help you find a job if you want one. For free.

Need help doing your taxes?  We have folks to help. For free.

Want to hear a story?  We’ll read one to you.  Or, you can read one yourself.  But there are limits.  You’ll somehow have to make do with only 25 books at a time.

And one DVD.

And three books on tape.

But if you don’t return them on time, there are penalties.  Ten cents per day, to be exact.  We can’t have people just running off with all of our stuff.”

I can’t even get a piece of bubble gum for a dime anymore.

There is something very comforting about this.  In today’s world, where we often lament the loss of connectedness, the loss of grace, and the loss of sanity, there exists this place that stands in stark contrast to it all.  It’s a living reminder of the virtues of generosity.  Trust everyone.  Give outrageously.  Expect nothing in return.  Do it not because you have to, but because making yourself and all you have available to everyone is just the right thing to do.

This is how we love our neighbors.  But it’s not just in the giving.  It’s in the sharing.  Not only do we give of ourselves to help someone else, we also open ourselves up to receive.  There is something very closed and protective about refusing hospitality.  We must not only give of ourselves to help others, but allow others to give to us, and through their own giving, feel the fullness that comes from offering without pretense.

Recently, Gabby took Jake and Audrey to have “lunch with friends” again at the soup kitchen.  They arrived early, and had the chance to chat with the folks who were already there.  Jake and Audrey both brought games with them.  Jake brought tic-tac-toe and a card game.  Audrey brought a wooden puzzle.  They sat and played with their new adult friends who were waiting for lunch.  Making friends.  Making connections.  Sharing.

As they were leaving, a man approached Jake, holding a toy truck in his hand.  Definitely a bit unexpected.  You don’t expect to see a homeless guy with a kid’s toy.  Looking toward Gabby he asked, “May I?”

She nodded.

The man just thought he would like it.  A homeless man.  Giving a gift.  Not wanting anything in return.

Jake lit up like the Griswold’s yard display at Christmas.

So did the man.

And there is our community.  Giving.  And receiving.

It’s powerful.  It’s Heavenly.  It’s Divine.

So, my prayer today is that I can be both the giver and the receiver.  To answer the knock at the door, or better yet, anticipate it.  And to knock on the door myself from time to time.  To ask and receive.

To borrow that cup of sugar.

Sounds pretty sweet, doesn’t it?