Manna in the Desert

There’s a name for it — bait and switch.

An employer hires an individual for a desirable position and then puts the individual in a less desirable position without their consent. I learned about this the hard way — through experience.

Four months ago I accepted a position that appealed to me enormously. I would be working for people a friend admired. I would be working with professionals who did first class work. Best of all, I could focus on what I enjoy and do well — write.

While the job wasn’t quite what I had anticipated, it was good. I appreciated the people I worked with and got enough positive feedback to make going to work satisfying. If it didn’t challenge me quite as much as my all time favorite job — working for Dana at the Capital Journal — it also didn’t bore me as much as wading through invoices with more than 3,000 separate items listed or stress me as much as telemarketing. I was content.

Then, two weeks ago, in a staff meeting, I learned I would no longer be doing the job for which I was hired. I learned I was expected to do a job for which I am temperamentally unsuited, one which would require me to work in an office by myself on top of what would have been — for me — a stressful daily commute.

I left the office that day and cried. I sat in my truck — not even bothering to drive home — and cried. I couldn’t do the job to which I had been assigned and I had no idea what I would do.

Depression is a demon that has plagued me for years, since Mom died, in fact. In my early 20s, I attempted suicide and ended up in the hospital. In my 30s, I was on antidepressants under a psychiatrist’s supervision. However, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life on drugs, so I learned to use cognitive and behavioral therapy techniques to manage the depression.

For the most part, I’ve been successful. I have gone through a couple rough spots since then — in the late 90s, when I couldn’t get out of bed for days on end and didn’t eat anything other than chocolate or cheese curls if I bothered to eat at all, and again in 2006 when I suffered a devastating series of losses right on top of one another. However, for the most part, I think I have managed my life in such a way as to prevent debilitating bouts of depression.

That involves knowing my triggers and knowing what I need to remain healthy. I need adequate sleep. I need time to be creative. I need to avoid alcoholic beverages. I need to be involved in faith-based activities. I need to avoid unnecessary daily stress. I need to be around other people — especially in the work place where I spend most of my waking hours. These — and a few other things — are all non-negotiable when it comes to maintaining my mental health.

And so, I was faced with a decision. I needed to decide whether I would sacrifice my mental health to draw a paycheck, or whether I would act to preserve my mental health. Staying in the position for which I was hired, I was told, was not an option.

I did the only thing that actually works for me in those situations. I put it in God’s hands. Too often in the past, I have weighed the pros and cons, done what seemed logical — even though there was a knot in the pit of my stomach — and lived to regret it. I am learning I need to weigh the pros and cons, but I also need to listen for the whisper that is either psychosis or the voice of God attempting to guide me.

In this situation, I would imagine trying the new job, giving it my best, and would end up physically ill. (That reminds me, I’m out of ibuprofen.) Then, I would explore the radical idea of just saying, “no,” of being unemployed if necessary to protect my mental health, and I would hear a whisper like the wind in the trees that said, “Trust me.”

I questioned this. What if it was just wishful thinking? What if I just wanted that to be the answer?

I sent an email to my prayer warriors, letting them know the situation, and asking them to pray for me. My plan was to continue praying about this for several days and then to make a decision. However, the timing was taken out of my hands.

When forced to make a decision, I opted to trust the intuition that said protecting my mental health had to be of paramount importance. If I didn’t, I would probably end up unemployed anyhow because my job neither offered health insurance (which made the meds affordable in the past) nor paid a salary which would have enabled me to purchase them out of pocket. At that point, I would not only have been unemployed, I would also have been unemployable.

What now? I’ve decided to appropriate the story of the Exodus. After being led out of Egypt, the Israelites had no choice but to rely on God, and he cared for them by sending them manna in the desert. Similarly, I have no choice but to rely on God, and to allow him to care for me one day at a time.

Something tells me, this will be an awesome adventure.

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A future and a hope

The last days are always the most difficult.

Not the last days of summer, when fall moves in slowly with balmy days that just hint at the harsher weather to come. Those are actually among my favorite each year.

I still wake in the morning to light of approaching dawn rather than winter’s darkness. I don’t need a coat, though I may throw on a shawl that my daughter purchased for me in Qatar while she was deployed. And, as the earth’s relationship to the sun begins to shift, changing the angle at which the light touches our environment, there’s a new richness in the colors.

I like all of that, which is why I usually spend more time painting in the fall than at any other time of the year. I gather together a tool chest which I’ve converted to hold my paint and brushes, a bucket of water to clean my brushes since I paint with acrylics, and some kind of surface to work on – maybe oriental paper, maybe a canvas panel, maybe a wooden panel covered with oriental paper – and head off in my pickup to some scene I’ve been watching all year in preparation for the perfect day.

When I arrive, I pull my easel out of the truck where I keep it, put on some music – mixed tapes that a friend made for me nearly a decade ago – and take a deep breath while I gaze around me. I don’t know why I need to breathe in the world I see before I can paint it, but that’s my modus operandi. Since it works, I don’t question it. Finally, I put together my palette and start with bold strokes.

When starting something new, there are two approaches – be bold or be cautious. In life, I tend to be cautious, feeling out a situation before I begin to show my colors. However, in art, I’ve found boldness suits me best. I lay out wide strokes of color and then begin to work with those strokes to shape the work into something that reflects my feel for the place. The whole process fills me with joy. I am – in those minutes – united with my creator and it is good.

But not all endings have silver linings like that. My brother and I were talking last night about Dad’s long good-bye. The first hints of what was to come came when he was 79. He needed quadruple bypass surgery, which my brothers and I were told went well. Unfortunately, a nurse read his chart wrong and got him up to walk just hours after he’d come out of surgery. He had a massive heart attack.

The doctors worked for 40 minutes, but were able to revive and stabilize him. He was in the ICU for weeks and then the coronary care unit for an even longer period of time. We were given the worst possible prognosis – possible brain damage, no possibility of a full recovery.

However, two months after surgery, he left the hospital and went back to his small apartment. He continued to work, when he wasn’t hospitalized for one thing or another. Of course, his job wasn’t terribly demanding. Dad was a barber and spent as much time reading magazines in the barber chair as he spent cutting hair. Bit by bit, age and declining health took its toll.

When he had his stroke, I was in favor of care and comfort rather than extreme measures. But my brothers recalled the way he recovered following heart surgery and weren’t as wiling to give up as I was. The next six months were incredibly difficult as we watched Dad fight everything which might have aided his recovery, and watched his health decline as a result. Eventually, my brothers agreed with me. Care and comfort.

One morning I woke and knew I needed to go to my Dad. I just knew. I called my supervisor and said I wouldn’t be at work that day. That morning, I made what was to be my last drive to see my dad while he was living. When I arrived, the nursing staff was putting him back in bed, having decided he was not strong enough to be in a wheelchair.

I don’t know that he knew me, but he knew I would pray with him. He would grab my wrist and say, “Our Father, our Father,” and I would pray the rosary loud enough for him to hear. I would pause, get something to drink, and he would grab me again. “Our Father, our Father.”

That’s how I spent my last day with my dad. Then, in late afternoon, he grabbed me with his one good arm, pulled my cheek next to his and said,” Love you, Ma.” At that moment, he was holding my mother who had died more than 30 years earlier. I said what he needed to hear. “Love you, too.”

When my brother came, he wanted to keep vigil alone. He and dad were close, so I honored that request. Dad never spoke another word, though. A morning later, I woke early again. Before I had even ground the beans for my morning coffee, the call came. Dad had died.

Life is full of so many good-byes. Some, like the seasons and rites of passage, are anticipated and welcomed. Others, like death or the loss of a job, come unexpectedly and we simply have to navigate them by taking one day at at time. At those times, the best approach is to remember, first, that we are created in the image of God and cope with as much dignity as is humanly possible for us at that moment; and second, that we are the beloved of God.

Yesterday, I stopped by the library to print off a few things, and shared with the librarian the news about the change in life I am currently navigating. Our conversation reminded me of that love which God reveals through his people. She printed off for me one of her favorite Bible verses.

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Yes, I knew as I walked out the door, I will have a future and a hope. God is good.

Birthdays & Change

My answers vary from year to year, but they invariably have one thing in common when my girls ask what I want for my birthday. They don’t cost a dime.

This year, I said I wanted to hear the sound of their voices. We text a lot. According to my phone bill last month, I sent around 800 text messages — 90 percent or more to my girls. Consequently, we rarely talk, only about once a week.

I miss the sound of their voices and all the things they share when one topic leads to another in conversation. Too, no matter how many times they text, “Love you,” it’s not the same as hearing the words.

Last year, I wanted something altogether different. I wanted healthy grandbabies.

Sara was expecting twins, and the goal was for her to carry them into October. We all knew the November due date wasn’t going to happen, but we also knew they needed to stay with their mommy as long as possible.

The girls, though, decided they didn’t want to make Gramma wait for her present. Sara called me early on Sunday, Sept. 12, just four days after my birthday, to tell me she was in the hospital. Neither of us used the dreaded word — labor. Instead, we talked about what the medical professionals were doing to stop contractions.

Thus, a very long day began. My daughter was hospitalized in Arizona. Her husband was at a flight show in Saint Louis, and I was sitting in Lake Preston, South Dakota. I sewed and prayed and prayed and sewed.

I was making the girls’ quilts. I had knitted them each a blanket, thinking the other gramma would make quilts. I learned when I visited Sara in August that she wanted her girls to have quilts her mommy made, so we picked out the fabric together. That day those quilt tops were stitched with love and prayers.

God bless the U.S. Air Force. When Brodie learned his girls were going to make their entrance into the world, arrangements were immediately made for him to leave the flight show. Air space was cleared for him to take off and he flew his A-10 home. He went straight to the hospital and was wearing his flight suit when the girls were born.

Avery weighed in at 3 pounds, 15 ounces. Paige was the larger, coming in at 4 pounds, 9 ounces. Ironically, the doctor mixed them up at birth, so they didn’t get the names their parents planned when Sara was expecting. By the time we learned that several days later, we were so grateful they were healthy, we didn’t care.

I held them for the first time a few weeks later and fell completely in love. When I had to leave after two weeks, I cried for 45 minutes, all the way from the house to the airport. The separation was breaking my heart.

So much has happened since then. Sara separated from active duty Air Force and joined the Air Force Reserves. Brodie received orders for a slot at Beale AFB in northern California. First, he had training in San Antonio, Texas, so the family moved there for a couple months before taking up residence in California.

Paige and Avery learned all kinds of things and progressed from a couple ounces of milk every couple hours to solid foods. They have teeth now and big smiles and get into everything they can. By the time I see them in November, they’ll probably be walking.

As for me, I moved from Lake Preston to Custer where I discovered a wonderful church family and began building new friendships. Through the summer months, I attended performances at the Black Hills Playhouse, concerts at the 1881 Courthouse Museum, and other functions in town. It’s been a rich and heady experience!

But change is on the horizon. I anticipate, though, that it will be good, because God is good and my life is in his hands.

Guilty of Gratitude

I wanted to hug my kids last night.

I wanted to hold them so close and so tightly that neither of us could breathe for a heartbeat or so. I was so incredibly grateful they were alive and well, both in body and soul. And, I felt guilty for that gratitude.

All day yesterday, my heart was filled with sadness. I could not put out of my mind the young man who died so tragically just feet from where I work.

A 22-year-old soldier, a Marine who recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan from what I’ve heard, went berserk after the bars closed. News reports indicate he was wielding a gun as he yelled for local law enforcement to “come out” as he stumbled around on Main Street. Then, he apparently got into his vehicle and drove around recklessly, ramming into things, including the sheriff’s office. A shoot-out in which he died followed.

This is the fourth death related to the current military action in Iraq and Afghanistan which has come this close to me. Only one death actually occurred overseas. Frank, a young man with whom my daughter was romantically involved while stationed at Shaw AFB in South Carolina, was killed in Kabul by a pilot he was training for the Afghan military, one of five Americans to die that day. It shouldn’t have happened.

When my kids were deployed, Sara to Qatar and Brodie with his A-10 to Afghanistan, I lived with a tight band of fear wrapped around my chest. I didn’t take an easy breath for months, not until they were both home safely and I had wrapped my arms around them.

And then, I still watched and worried. Did they come back whole in soul as well as in body? Sara protected me from what she experienced, but I knew Brodie had at least one heartbreaking experience. He and his wing man had pushed back insurgents so helicopters could go in to get our soldiers out. As he was lifting off so the helicopters could enter the airspace, he watched as one crashed into a mountainside. I cried when I read that email, and worried about the effect it would have on him.

As I said, the young soldier who died this week is the fourth war-related death I have seen. Frank was the third, and the first two were in Pierre shortly after the 200th Engineer Company of the S.D. National Guard returned from Iraq.

They were among the first to be called up. When they first went over, they lived in tents and didn’t have the amenities soldiers deployed later would enjoy. They stood in line for hours to call home, and didn’t have direct Internet access. Skype, which my kids used to keep in touch with one another, wasn’t even an option for soldiers in the 200th.

They did not suffer a single loss while they were in Iraq. The losses came later.

I remember the day they returned to Pierre. I rode with them. Only later did I learn I had been given that honor because, while the unit was deployed, I refused the let the community forget the soldiers were gone. I wrote story after story in a series called the Yellow Ribbon series. I wrote about challenges families faced, the soldiers’ stories when they came home on leave, community efforts to support them.

As a result of that storytelling and months of praying for those troops, I carried them in my heart. I remember meeting with Maj. Gen. Michael Gorman shortly after the unit returned. He’s retired now, but was head of the S.D. National Guard then. As a result of my series, and a number of phone calls, we were on a first-name basis by that time. Both of us were worried about readjustment.

The soldiers had, if I remember correctly, five days from boots on the ground in Iraq to home with their families. The Guard had done what they could to help families prepare. I had done what I could to educate the public with informational articles about the challenges soldiers would face with readjustment. Mike and I were still concerned, though – and rightly so.

Three months later, in a stupid drunken fight with one of his buddies, one of the soldiers shot and killed a friend from high school, a friend who was like a brother. When he was sentenced to federal prison, the victim’s family asked the court for leniency. We all believed, though the soldier’s attorney didn’t use it as a defense, the shooting was a result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

And just a month after the shooting, the unit commander, meeting with his unit for the first weekend exercise after the deployment, forgot to drop his infant son off at the babysitter’s. The child spent a hot August day in his dad’s SUV. At the child’s funeral, his grandfather hugged me, tears running down his face, and said, “My grandson was a victim of the war.” I could only nod.

One after another, it seems, these precious lives are being taken from us. It breaks my heart.

I have opposed this war on terrorism since Day One. No war on terrorism has ever been won through combat. Terrorism is best fought with diplomacy, with listening as those who feel powerless to affect change and negotiating to find solutions to address the injustices they see.

Terrorists are like trapped and wounded animals, striking out because they have nothing to lose. They become religious extremists because they nothing to lose, and need to believe God is on their side or they can’t get through the day. I firmly believe, if we – as a nation – would learn to accord others a little more respect instead of seeing others as either tools to help us get what we want or obstacles which prevent us from getting what we want, peace would be a lot closer than it is now.

Until there is peace, or at least until we have decided to withdraw from military action, I can only speak out when the opportunity arises, and bear the guilt of being grateful for every day my precious children are safe.

The One That Got Away

For some reason, I’ve been thinking lately about the one that got away.

That makes it sound as though I don’t know what factors have contributed to this phenomenon. I do, though — Facebook and Jesuit (or would it be Ignatian?) spirituality. (I am still learning the difference.)

Facebook’s contribution was connecting me with a couple adolescent crushes — not that we’ve done more than “friend” each other. Neither has commented on my blog, or even given it a thumbs up, and the stats show I am read about as often as the ingredients list on cat food, so I feel safe in writing about them.

The first was my “boyfriend” in eighth grade — emphasis on “friend.” We rode bike together and played saxophone together and essentially just hung out together. What I remember best about him is his laugh, which was so spontaneous and joyful.

My mom wanted me to begin exploring the physical ways couples express affection with him — though I am sure she didn’t want us to go too far. She would encourage me to sit in the dark with him, which I suppose was to lead us into temptation, but we just talked and shared a few chaste kisses. I was too innocent and too worried about sin to do more.

He moved away and that fizzled out. A few years later a young man moved to town and became my brother’s best friend. He was gentle and had beautiful brown eyes and I wanted desperately to be his girlfriend. Although we did become friends of sorts, and he was extremely kind to me after Mom died, he was interested in someone else entirely.

Neither of these, by the way, is the one who got away. The one who got away passed through my life three times.

We sat beside each other in class the first time I tried college — simply because the teacher seated us in alphabetical order. I can still remember the spark of awareness I experienced the first time I saw him. Now I can name it — sexual attraction — but at 17, I was still remarkably innocent and extremely shy. I only knew I was aware of him in a way I had never before experienced and it made me uncomfortable.

What might have happened is hard to say. I wasn’t at all prepared for college, and ended up dropping out within weeks after school started. But fate brought us together again six years later in another class. I had grown up a little and was prepared for the rigors of university life. I might have been prepared for a relationship, too, but the first of two major frienemies in my life took the same class.

The One Who Got Away and I were talking when she walked into class on the first day, and seated herself on his right side. She immediately demanded his attention and then latched on to me after class, gushing at length about the immediate rapport she shared with him and the certainty that they were soulmates. I remember the disappointment I experienced, because I thought he and I had shared a spark.

I did not learn for years I could not trust that woman. When I did, I found myself remembering the class and the guy and wondering if perhaps we had shared a spark. Five or six years later, we met for the last time. He was in a graduate class with a friend, and we had lunch together. By that time, I had gained 100 pounds — eating was my way of coping with an abusive marriage and the subsequent divorce — and had the emotional warmth of broken glass. Lunch did not go well.

What does this have to do with Jesuit spirituality? I am reading “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything,” by James Martin, S.J. Chapter Three is called “What Do You Want?” and explores desire as the way God helps us to know ourselves and the way he helps us see what we are meant to do.

I like the idea, but something in me resists it as well. The dissenting voice within me says, “What difference does it make what I want, what I ‘desire?’ I won’t get it anyway.” That voice has begun to rake up old dreams to prove its point. And so, the one that got away comes to mind.

However, I find another voice within me isn’t willing to accept that. “Look back if you must, but don’t draw illogical conclusions.” That voice recognizes I am at a crossroads and recognizes I could lose more than the possibility of romance if I am not careful. If I don’t take time to figure out what I want, what I desire, the one that got away could end up being me. I could end up living my whole life like a tumbleweed blown by the winds of fate, rather than like a vine grafted to healthy rootstock that bears much fruit.

The choice is mine.

Do you remember?

Sometimes the major stories of the day are hard to ignore – not that I try to ignore the news, but I’m not a news junkie either. I just prefer to focus on people and stories close to home.

Yesterday, though, I found myself confronted by two anniversaries – the accident which killed Diana, the Princess of Wales, in Paris 14 years ago, which is significant because she would have turned 50 this year, and the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Articles related to both asked readers to remember what they were doing when they heard the news.

I was painting when the breaking news of Diana’s accident hit the airwaves, working on one of the blue pieces in my Inside/Out series. Back in those days, I still believed my life would be wasted if I didn’t pursue an art career. Either an epiphany or museum fatigue can be credited with planting the seeds which grew into a drive that shaped my life for nearly 10 years.

I was looking at Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds IV” about seven hours after entering the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989 and found myself thinking, “I could do that.” At first, I meant, “That’s such a simple piece, anyone could do it.” Then, I felt an internal shift and meant something else altogether. I meant,”O’Keeffe’s life was dedicated to creating art, and mine could be as well – if I were willing to make the commitment.”

I went home, and went to work. After seven years of painting as a hobby, I started treating it like a job, blocking out time to paint around a full-time job and family responsibilities. It paid off. Within two years, I was regularly exhibiting my work, winning awards and selling a few pieces. By the time Diana died, my work was being acquisitioned into museum collections. I was well on my way to realizing my dream.

A few years later, my art career came to a screeching halt. I allowed myself to become distracted by something which really was not my responsibility by someone who persuaded me it was. By the time I realized I had unwittingly sacrificed my dream, it was too late. I was beaten and battered by circumstances beyond my control, and burned out by the fight to protect and preserve what could not – by that point – be saved.

Although I continued to pick up a paint brush from time to time, it was a couple years before I began to paint again, and then only for personal pleasure. Occasionally, I’d still sell a piece, but I didn’t even try to exhibit my work. I just made pretty pictures. I no longer had anything to say.

That loss has haunted me for more than a decade.

I’ve wrestled to make peace in my heart with the individual who was so incredibly influential that she changed the course of my life. I’ve also found a shadow of the dream darkens other endeavors, prevents them from taking root in my life, from growing with hope, blossoming and bearing fruit. They wither. They die.

Lately, I’ve been challenged to look at the losses in my life, the dry bones scattered over the plain. (Yes, those of you who know your Bible, I’m alluding to Ezekiel 37.) But, I’m also being challenged to open myself in a new way to the possibility that loss isn’t the end.

That’s not a new lesson. I am Christian, after all. We believe in not only the death of Christ, but also his resurrection.

Most of us, see this as a metaphor for our own lives as well. Doors open. Doors close. These renewals undergird our faith in God’s loving care.

I know and have experienced all of this in my life. I have determinedly acted with faith, putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that God was at work, even when my heart was breaking, and holding tightly to the staff which supported me as I made the journey, holding tightly to the sure knowledge that I was being shaped with love.

But we can’t force healing. When we are wounded by the betrayals in life, by the disappointments and disillusionments, by the tragedies and injustices, we can’t simply move on – no matter how hard we try. We need to mourn. We need to grieve. We need to acknowledge what we have lost.

After Jesus died, Mary Magdalen was consumed by grief. She wept at the tomb, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13).

I do not know. That’s how we feel when we suffer losses. Consumed by unanswered questions. Consumed by unanswerable questions. Consumed by the knowledge that our lives have been irrevocably changed and nothing can change this. No matter how much we believe in God and his love, we feel this way. It’s inescapable.

So, how do we prevent our losses from casting a long shadow over our lives? How do we prevent them from killing new endeavors with their chilling presence?

We must allow them to be transformed. We must realize that loss involves more than one door closing and another opening, a metaphor which suggests our lives can be compartmentalized into little boxes and parts can be safely packed away when an ending occurs. That’s not true.

We must remain whole and must allow the suffering to transmute our lives.

Jesus says to Mary Magdalen when she sees him, “Don’t cling to me.” (John 20:17). In the same way, I must not cling to the old dream. I must not continue to tell myself that if I am not the artist I once dreamed of becoming, I am not an artist. God did not take the gift away.

But first, I must mourn. I must stop hating myself for being so abysmally gullible that I would give up my dream rather than fight to protect it. And I must mourn, because that is the way which leads to healing and transformation.

Do I remember? Yes, I remember, but it’s time to grieve and let go.