The Value of Mundane Details

A spring evening.

A few months ago I logged out of an online meeting with the realization that I had no idea of the weather report for my colleagues’ locations. I laughed the rest of the day as I shared this odd detail with a few others. It is absolutely true that I can check the weather report for the locations of my colleagues. It is true that the weather they were experiencing did not impact the meeting we were having (there were no storms that day). It is true the sunshine I was experiencing for the first time in weeks changed not a detail of their days, nor had any relevance to the business we were conducting. It is also true that it was odd, bordering on uncomfortable, for me that we did not talk about the weather. As I laughed with others about my seemingly new dedication to weather reports, clarity of my discomfort came.

I know there are lots of jokes, I have even shared a few, about how we revert back to conversation about the weather when we do not know what else to talk about. Yet, the weather is a connection we can all make with each other. It is a starting point for any conversation, we do not have to like the same type of weather, but we can engage in simple conversation that builds a point of contact so the next time we speak to each other we can possibly try another topic. Or if we do not meet again, at least for a moment we connected with another human being, we were each seen and heard.

There are many people I know who are experiencing loneliness, anxiety, depression, grief, confusion, and fear. Sometimes they are unsure how to share what is happening with them. Sometimes they do not want to appear weak, needy, or be an inconvenience. There are many reasons people choose to remain silent in their suffering, no matter how much the rest of us would welcome the opportunity to have them confide in us. Even as we know we cannot fix the pain that person is feeling, we would willingly carry them while they carry their burdens. We are after all created from love and for loving each other.

The weather report might seem like a mundane detail, just like asking what you ate for a meal, or the casual “how’re you doing” as you stand next to someone. These are habits of conversation we fall into, often without real thought. Yet, I think they are good habits to nurture. It matters if we take a moment to greet someone. It matters if we learn their name, remember if they like rainy days, or enjoy the brightness of snow. It matters if we notice when they appear to be carrying a burden, maybe they will not share that burden with us; and maybe if we acknowledge we are together for that moment, we will help them feel a bit more connected to others while they carry that burden.

My discomfort with that online meeting was that I had not made a mundane connection with my colleagues. I did not feel as if I had expressed clearly to them that I care about them, respect them, and am here if ever they need someone to remind them they are loved. My words may be about the weather, yet my intention is about connection, and that is why I love mundane details. That is why I believe they matter to me when it comes to building relationships. I think the collection of mundane details we have for each other build and strengthen our friendships. They are the thousands of little ways we say to each other that you matter enough for me to notice you.

These friendships begin small, with weather reports, and grow each time we share a little more of ourselves. Not all mundane connections will grow into lifelong friendships, but each connection remains an opportunity for us to remind each other of the truth that we are all connected. Maybe if we can continue to make these connections with each other we will eradicate the us vs them mentality that continues to divide us. Maybe if we continue to share our mundane details we will be able to help one more person feel the love that brought all of us into existence. For the realization of that goal, I would gladly remember where you like to sit at a table, what type of weather you prefer, if you are the first to say hi or if you need me to be first, or even if you prefer that I sit in silence next to you while you scroll on your phone, smiling when you turn to me to say hi. It is in these acts of noticing each other that I believe some day we will all recognize how much love there is in this world, and spend our time sharing that love until all the world is at peace.

Christmas Confessions

There was a time I thought Christmas Eve services were only a creation of Hollywood. I did not know people actually went to church to sing the songs I heard on the radio. As a college student I attended my first Christmas Eve service with the guy I was dating because his dad was a pastor. I thought it the oddest thing in the world, but I wanted to impress him so I went along. The only memory I have of that evening is of standing in the sanctuary, with the whole congregation circled around the room, holding candles singing Silent Night.

I grew up in a working poor family that chose to work as many holidays as they could. The ability to get holiday pay outweighed the need to get together on a specific date, and if they were able to work it out to get overtime pay and holiday pay, so much the better. As a child I accepted this as our normal, as an adult I recognize the financial wisdom my adults demonstrated. Since this was our normal, celebrating a holiday on a specific day was not something that was vital to me, not so much for my spouse, the son of a pastor. Sure, his dad works each Christmas, but that work involved observing the sacredness of the holiday, a completely unusual concept for me.

Fast forward twenty-some years and I am now the pastor responsible for organizing and leading the annual Christmas Eve service. I work on the holiday, but not for overtime or holiday pay. I work to help others encounter the sacredness of this holiday. I spend weeks (sometimes months) creating the services to help others find a space of welcome and to be reassured of God’s love.

I confess this has not always been easy. Yes, I have grown more tenderhearted and gentle surrounding this holiday as I have gotten older. However, my original mindset was it made no sense to have a service on this holiday if people were not going to come because it was a waste of money. This is clearly a product of my childhood thinking. My thinking changed from that to a frustration as I realized the cliché that some people only attend services on their faith traditions high holy days was not hyperbole. As I grew older, my thinking evolved to resignation that I would always be exhausted by Christmas Day, and that no matter what I did someone was going to be unhappy with my energy level, and I would have to endure hearing about how I had ruined yet another Christmas. Add in to those experiences the number of times I have officiated a funeral service, or attended one for a family member during the month of December, and it is no wonder Christmas is a season of mixed feelings.

I confess, it would have been really easy to stay in my discontent and disillusionment of this holiday. But I did not want to do that, I wanted more than anything to experience this holiday as one of hope, joy, peace, and love. I wanted to be able to recognize everybody approaches the holiday season differently and my responsibility is to observe it as I am able, without judging others and without allowing the judgment of others to cloud my view. I wanted to capture the magic of Christmas so many people talk about, but that usually escapes me no matter how hard I try to create meaningful services or loving family traditions.

To confess as a Christian pastor that Christmas is not your favorite time of year is not easy to do. Usually this results in some pushback about my level of faithfulness or succumbing to the pressure of secular society. I am not sure what an equivalent might be, but maybe it would be similar to a professional athlete sharing that they really do not enjoy the sport they play. Even though it is difficult to confess this apathy, reluctance, or even dislike of Christmas, I found healing in finally claiming those very feelings. In all my years of trying to find the magic of Christmas, it was only when I was honest about my negative feelings around the holiday that I began to find that magic.

First, it came from a more experienced pastor who assured me I could struggle with Christmas all I needed, because that was the point of the story. God brought all these people into the Nativity story (Luke 1-2, Matthew 1-2) to remind us that not everyone was an eager or willing participant, but they were invited all the same. Second, it came when the COVID19 pandemic forced our congregation to worship differently. There I was Christmas Eve 2020, standing in my dining room in front of a Zoom screen, while people I loved lit candles and held them up, while singing Silent Night. There was the reminder of the power of community, there was the Christmas magic. Third, it came this Christmas Eve. I stood in the sanctuary on a night of subzero temperatures, ferocious wind, and messy roads, and saw the faces of people I have been given to care for and love, and I knew of all the places I was going to find Christmas magic, this was the place.

I confess, I did find that magic. At the end of the service I stood in front of the gathered community as we lifted our lit candles and sang Silent Night and my heart cracked wide open. In that moment, it made sense why we gather for this service, why for some people all they need is that night to renew their faith so they can do the work God gave them the rest of the year, why we pastors pour so much energy into creating special services, and why even when we feel disillusioned we are still invited into the Christmas Story.

I confess, even though my heart is becoming more tender and I am becoming more gentle, I still did not think I would experience the magic of Christmas. I had in mind that I had missed my chance to find that magic. But God never ceases to amaze me, because just when I thought I had wandered too far from the magic, God dropped it right down on me. And in case I missed all the evidence of that gift, God tried one more time, and with the voice of one of the youngest members of our community said to me, “This is the best Christmas ever.”

Wherever you find yourself in the pursuit of holiday magic, I hope you will know what it has taken me so long to comprehend, that no matter who you are or where you are in life, you are not alone, you are welcomed and loved just as you are, by the One who created all the cosmos. Come reluctantly or eagerly, it does not matter, because there is always room and magic for you.

The Fourth Week of Advent 2022

This week’s theme is love. I have been watching this Advent a stray kitten be welcomed into our home by our 11 year old dog and 2 year old cat. Both our pets were happy enough together, and we had no plan to welcome a new pet. But the kitten’s litter arrived on a friend’s porch a couple of weeks before the freezing weather arrived. After much work, all but one kitten was claimed and freezing temperatures were predicted that week. Advent brought us a kitten who needed a home.

I knew there would be a bit of tension as the pets adjusted to sharing space, but to my delight they were smitten within two days. Now as Advent turns into Christmas the three of them are a wonderful example of love. Both the dog and cat have taken to training the kitten, who is a fast learner. Both the dog and the cat have given up some of their comfort and ease to welcome an energetic kitten who naps often, but not nearly as long as they would prefer. All three of them are a reminder each day of the importance of having loved ones to share your days.

This week we approach Christmas to tell again the story of how God, who is love, embodied our human nature to show us how much love matters. I am thinking of how examples of love are all over the place, and if we open ourselves up we will recognize them. For me it was this simple moment in the kitchen when the dog moved so the cats could drink from his bowl, then the older cat showed the kitten which was the water bowl. This is not a monumental moment, but it was a reminder that loves comes in many quiet ways; and love shared will nurture us so that we can thrive in the place we have found ourselves.

Hopefully, as we recall the story of Christmas we will find evidence of the love we have been given, and we will continue to be nurtured by the communities we have been given, and we will thrive as we grow closer to God and closer to each other. . . and maybe we will get a few longer naps along the way.

The Third Week of Advent 2022

Our focus for this week was peace. Somewhere in all of this I realized I had switched the themes of the week from some of the liturgies, but it fit the services we were hosting and I did not mind so much that our themes were a bit out of order. I have found when I put things out of order pay I bit more attention. I spent the week thinking about peace in my life.

There was a time I would have cited peace as that elusive “world peace” concept. But as I have grown in experience and age, I find my definition of peace has expanded. Now peace includes being able to have conversations that do not result in arguments or the silent treatment. Peace includes being able to lay my head down at the end of the day knowing I did my best that day to demonstrate gratitude. Peace includes knowing if this were my last day I have left behind people who know I love them deeply, and my love is a fraction of the love God has for them.

I used to think people who were peacemakers were the kind of people who waded into conflict and made everyone talk it out. For sure, some peacemakers do that work. But most of the peacemakers I know spend their days making others feel valued, included, and loved. These peacemakers do this work in a million ways, by laughing with others, cooking, cleaning, providing safe spaces, by asking after loved ones, by sharing memes or reels, mostly by being present with the people who populate their days in a way that makes it known they are thankful for the opportunity to share that moment.

I am struck again this season that the peace I find in my days is because people take time to see me, and I think when that can be duplicated on a larger scale we create peace in our families, organizations, countries, and hopefully some day the world. I still long for world peace, but I recognize that will not be achieved until all of us are willing to see the value each of us holds. May we be willing to work toward that goal this season and always.

The Second Week of Advent 2022

The second week of Advent my prayers were for all of us to find some joy in our days. This pray was answered in many different ways. As we reach the end of the second week and begin the third week of Advent I am looking back at the evidence of the joy I encountered and decided to share this photo of lemon trees growing. Two of us in my crew have been trying to grow lemon trees from seeds for most of a year. Finally in the second week of Advent we found our seedlings strong enough to transplant.

The First Week of Advent 2022

Last night I had dinner with a friend who has known me since my last year of seminary. We had no idea when we met this friendship would grow or that our professional lives would weave together. As I drove home from dinner, along city streets I rarely drive, surrounded by more vehicles than I see in a normal week in my own town, I was thinking about how valuable these friendships we are given prove to be over time.

The reason this came to mind was the question my friend asked and then her response. She asked me, “How are you doing with your grief?” I replied, “I am sad.” She replied, “Yes.”

For those of you readers not aware we are in a season of funerals. A season of funerals is the name I have given to those times when we have a number of funerals in a shortened time frame. Sometimes we reach double digits in the course of a few months, sometimes we have a handful in the course of a month or two. Always, these seasons seem to catch us by surprise.

My friend’s question and response acknowledge three things: one, that I am grieving the death of people I love; two, that it is okay I am sad; and three, I am known and loved. Often I hear from others that pastors do not really love the people they serve, and that a good pastor will be able to move quickly through the emotions surrounding a death in the community. I have always disagreed with this idea. I think this is a misunderstanding of the reality of sharing life and ministry with others.

The reality is pastors are people who come to love the community God has called them to serve. Pastors grieve along with the community when someone dies, but they also grieve themselves. The longer you live in a community, the more life you share with the community, the more friendships you grow, the more your lives are woven together. The death of someone in that community pulls on a thread, changes the way the tapestry looks, and makes it more noticeable someone else is missing.

My faith assures me I will see those people again, and one day when I can look back on the tapestry of my life I will be able to see how all the people I have encountered, all those threads, have been woven together to create something beautiful and unique. I hold on to that hopeful promise and look forward to that day.

It is that promise that allows me to acknowledge I am sad. To be honest that my tears are on the surface during this season. It seems to me being able to name my sadness and cry my tears allows me to honor the love I have been given by those no longer here with us, while also honoring the love I have with all the other people who have been woven into my life.

Last night my friend stood beside me, literally and figuratively, in my grief. She did not push me to share or even ask me to explain, she let me name my sadness and she held that space for me. That moment walking down a city street, surrounded by buildings, people, vehicles, and noise, felt holy.

This morning reflecting back on that moment I am struck by how the theme of the first week of Advent met me on a city street. The theme from our liturgy last Sunday was hope, and we were encouraged to recognize the moments of hope we encounter in our days. In all the good moments of this first week, it was that holy moment last night that broke open my heart. There was much around us on that sidewalk to fill me with hopelessness, yet on an unfamiliar street the Holy Spirit moved in my heart and filled me with hope.

As this first week of Advent draws to a close, I am mindful of all the threads of friendship woven into my life. I am astonished I have known so many people who continue to demonstrate to me what it means to love, to be a friend, to be human, and to share this life with others. I am thankful for the lessons I continue to learn and a faith that continues to deepen. I am eager for the coming holy moments in which my hope will be renewed and grow. I live in anticipation of the day when all our sadness will be no more, and in its place will be a knowledge of how deeply we are loved and connected.

Onward I go stumbling toward that promised day. May your journey this Advent season break open your heart to an eternal love that is beyond measure, and fill you with hope, even in your sadness. Remember you are a valuable thread in many tapestries.

Fifteen Years

September 2006

This fall I joyfully passed the fifteen year mark serving United Church of Woodhull. This has caused a lot of reflection, looking back at photographs, and reviewing many of the words I have written. I have laughed at old photographs, been amazed that I have forgotten some of the projects we did, re-read words I wrote while wondering how I managed to sound so articulate, and looked over the names of people and families I have known.

I keep a book full of the names of people I have been present for their special services. I record weddings, baptisms, confirmations, affirmations of faith, funerals, commissionings, and ordinations. I enjoy looking through this book and recalling those moments. There are so many holy moments recorded in this book. I know most clergy keep a record, especially since we tend to travel to new communities; and because I serve a small congregation, in a rural area, my numbers are much lower than some of my colleagues. I also know our joy and sorrow is of the same nature.

One of the unique points of these lists is that the number of people on our list often is more than the number of people we see in the pews on a Sunday morning. I remember being told by many I would reach this milestone, so it does not come as a surprise. I think what surprises me the most is how clearly I can recall the moments behind each one of those names and dates.

I remember the soft laughter when I was baptizing someone more than a foot taller than me. I remember the outdoor service years ago when I waited for the train to go by before I finished the installation liturgy. I remember the wedding when I lost my voice so it sounded like I was crying through the whole service. I remember seeing a work team surrounded by a whole congregation as we prayed together. I remember all those moments when I looked out at a grieving family. I also remember all the teenagers who tried to make me laugh during a solemn moment because they were confident in their ability to make me laugh loudly.

I have so many holy moments that make up the past fifteen years. I never expected that much goodness to come my way. I am deep in the preparation for Advent and the coming new year, and I suppose that causes my reflections to be a bit more serious. I arrived here a parent with young children, still in my twenties, with almost no experience about life in a worshipping community. I arrived confident I had been called to this place to learn with a community what it means to live this faith in the Triune God. I was looking for a place to call home, and a people to welcome me and my family to grow in love. That prayer has been answered over and over again.

I am thankful as I look back over the names on my list for each of those opportunities to experience the power of the Holy Spirit. I am thankful for each person, each family, and each chance to experience life connected to others. Fifteen years have gone by and I remain amazed I have been given this opportunity. I look forward to what God will bring next.

In case you are wondering, here are the numbers from my list: Weddings – 14. Ordinations – 18. Commissionings – no less than 32 (a couple entries were lacking complete notes). Baptisms – 34. Installations – 36. Confirmations/Affirmations of Faith – 53. Funerals – 90.

Earning Titles, Part Three

As I stated in the previous two posts I wrote those posts years ago but never clicked “publish.” I chose to publish those posts because of a conversation I had with a woman I admire; a conversation which reminded me of the women I have known over the years who have broken barriers that make my life possible.

These women include, but are not limited to, the journalist who had to fight to have her name as her byline and not be listed as Mrs. Her Husband’s Name. There is the woman who was the first married female teacher in a school district, being allowed to hold that position only after the superintendent asked her husband for permission. There are the women who told me about being unable to wear maternity clothes at their jobs (especially if they were teachers) because they were not allowed to mention their pregnancy at work. There are the women who have shared how they were looked down upon because they worked outside the home and hired help to clean the house. There are the women who had to stop working once they were married because married women were not allowed to work for that organization. There are the women who are partners in their family business but have been ignored when it comes to outside people wanting to talk about the business. There are the women who have chosen to stay at home with their children because they could and been referred to as lazy because it is assumed they wasted their education.

All but one of these stories come from women who are still alive today. Some of them are enjoying their retirement years, and some have decades more of work. I have learned these stories because I have asked. I have wanted to know how other women navigate living and working in a society that often minimizes the accomplishments of women at every age. I have learned for most of them their biggest supporters have been their spouses, their kids, their best friends, and sometimes their pastors, while some of their biggest opponents have been colleagues, supervisors, and strangers. This is the same type of experience I have had, so the only surprise is that this is still happening after all these years.

I am of a generation who had more opportunities for education and employment than earlier generations, while also still having to fight to be seen in the classrooms, to learn how to flirt because men in power are more amenable when a young woman flirts with them, to make coffee and copies while also learning how to moderate a meeting and balance an organization’s budget. I have been written up more than once by older female supervisors for not wearing enough dresses/skirts, for not wearing enough makeup, and for not trying to look more appealing. I have slipped out of the grabby hands of enough men to recognize an incoming inappropriate touch, and I have learned how to ask that certain jokes no longer be told without fear of losing my job (or at least with confidence I cannot be fired immediately). This is the reality I inherited and that I have worked hard to change. It is one that all the women who have shared their stories with me have described.

The reality of our society is that women are treated differently than men. The titles women earn are often seen as threats to the men around them, and sometimes cause resentment in the women who were unable to realize the same professional goals. Thankfully this continues to change as we become more aware of the power of our words and actions. Thankfully there are women who lead the way, like the women who have shared their stories with me, who encourage and celebrate with me; and who make small decisions that change the world so women have their own bylines, choose their own professions, wear comfortable clothes to work, run their own businesses and organizations, and support other women to do the same.

I aspire to be the kind of woman who supports all people as they achieve their dreams, so the stories I tell will be about the generations to come who have no idea what it is like to be known only by their spouse’s title.

Earning Titles, Part Two

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Here is the second of two posts I wrote some years ago. 

The most precious title I have earned is mom.  I wanted that to be clear since that is not the title I am going to write about today and my children follow this blog.

In recent months I have been in several conversations about how titles are used.  I have learned many women in my field struggle to have people remember or recognize their official titles, especially if they are a Rev. Dr.  This title means they completed a Master of Divinity degree and the ordination requirements of their denomination (Rev.) and a Doctor of Ministry or PhD (Dr.).  A number of the women have shared how their male colleagues do not have this problem, they are often called Rev. Dr. or Dr. if they have earned that title, both in written correspondence and introductions.  The ease by which our male colleagues receive recognition for their titles is often one of those things chosen to let slide because there are many other things to put energy into changing.  This seems especially true of the women who are married and are routinely referred to Mrs. or Mrs. “husband’s name.”  This lack of use of our titles feels like minimizing all the work that went into earning those titles.  To put it more personally, being referred to as Mrs. or Mrs. “my husband’s name” ties all my worth up in the person I married.

Almost fifteen years ago I earned the title Rev. when I was ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament.  Eight years ago I earned that elusive title of Dr. after finishing a Doctor of Ministry program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.  Almost no one calls me by my official title of Rev. Dr. or a shortened version of Rev. or Dr.  For the most part I do not mind because I prefer people to call me by my first name.  I serve as a pastor in a community full of multiple generations and long ago assured people they could call me by my first name or my title as they were comfortable.  I have delighted in being introduced by members of our worshipping community as “my pastor” which changed to “my pastor, the Rev. Dr.” after my graduation.  The pride in the voices of those who helped me achieve a childhood dream of earning a doctorate never ceases to make me smile and blush.

Earning a doctorate was a dream that kept me going through years when my world seemed to be limited to choosing between a cash job that would get me into legal trouble if ever the IRS found out, or a legal job that would pay minimum wage but never be enough to pay the bills, especially if I became the statistic others thought I would be by having a child before I was old enough to vote or buy alcohol.  I earned three degrees, BSW, MSW, MDiv, and the title Rev. while holding this dream and struggling against expectations of my failure.  I earned the MDiv, Rev., and DMin/Dr., with my husband by my side, proofreading all my papers, and listening to me talk through all the research and reading, all while taking care of our family so I could realize this childhood dream.

At my graduations and ordination it was my husband by my side, smiling the biggest, and proudly introducing me with my newest title.  He was such a part of my earning my doctorate that I told him I wished I could share the title with him.  He responded with some words about enjoying the fact that I had earned the title and the question, “Is there a doctor in the house?”  I smiled, laughed, and blushed at the pride in his voice.

The titles we earn are more than letters, they are symbols of what we came through to earn that title.  They are like stretch marks from pregnancy, laugh lines from years of joy, or scars from healed injuries.  They are evidence we have learned, changed, and been made into something new.  I think that is why it is so important to me, and maybe to others, that we be recognized by the titles we have earned, not the titles of our spouse.  And maybe that is why our spouses are the first to introduce us by our titles, because they know how much history those letters hold.

I defied expectations by achieving the improbable dream of earning a doctorate and though I do not long to be called Rev. Dr. or Dr. on a daily basis, I do admit to feeling a sense of immense achievement each time I hear those titles.

Earning Titles, Part One

The majority of this post was written about six years ago.  I had not published this two-part reflection but was recently encouraged to post them, so here is the first of two.   

20210825_175208I was first generation college student.  I coasted through high school with decent grades and because I was in the classes with the college bound students I heard about college opportunities and followed along with my classmates in the whole process of college.  I knew college was too expensive and not what we did, but I also believed my adults when they told me if I wanted to go to college they would make sure I got there.  Looking back on that time I realize how difficult that must have been for my adults to know I was headed down a path they did not know and would not follow with me.

I finished college earning my first title, three letters at the back of my name, BSW.  Then I went to graduate school which seemed bizarre but fitting to my adults, and I earned three more letters, MSW.  In five years I had more education than kids from my type of life statistically earned, especially without a child in tow.  My life was so different than what I had expected or been trained to expect from the treatment of my middle school and high school teachers and classmates.  I lay no blame at anyone’s feet, I know where I come from, and I know how rare it is to break those cycles; and thanks to those six letters I have an even better understanding of how rare it is for the cycle to be broken.

I also had a recognition that a dream I had since I was a child could come true.  I was young when I learned that a person could be a “Dr.” without being a medical doctor.  I learned that there was a chance to study so much that you would be considered a person of expertise.  I was enthralled by this idea that I could study so much I would earn the letters to put in front of my name that would tell the world I took my work seriously.  It was like a dream come true I did not even know I had until I learned it was possible.

After earning my six letters after my name, I married my best friend and took his last name.  But I was adamant I would not be called Mrs. unless it was followed by my first name, never his.  Of course, I was understanding of the generational habit that means I still get called “Mrs. his first name” but I wanted to be clear if his title did not change with marriage then neither did mine need to change.  A few years later I earned a title that went before my name, Rev.  Now we were Rev. and Mr.

But outside of our worshipping community I find I am more often referred to as Mrs. or Mrs. “my husband’s first name.”  Each time this happens I remember an interview I watched of Dr. Jill Biden.  The interviewer asked her if she preferred Mrs. Second Lady or Mrs. Biden.  She replied, “Dr. Jil Biden is good.”  There was uncomfortable laughter on the part of the interviewer while Dr. Biden sat smiling graciously then she helped move the interview forward.  I attempt to imitate her graciousness.