Life, Death and More Life

I don’t think I have made it through a day in the past month without crying. Please, I beg God, please don’t let me lose someone else I love during the Christmas season.

Technically, it’s Advent, and technically, Mom didn’t die during Advent. She died before the First Sunday of Advent, but it was December, and the heart doesn’t measure time with calendars anyhow. The heart measures time by experience, and my heart has Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the time between tangled in a knot of heartache and grief.

About the time I turned 40, my mom’s age when she died, I suffered an existential crisis. Whether it was an early mid-life crisis or just the crisis of living past my mother’s age of death, I don’t know. I just know that I was desperate to make sense of my life, for the pain and disappointments and mistakes to make sense. I read over and over — until I had memorized some parts — Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. So much resonated with me, validated my experience, and in that, I found a way to make peace with my life.

About the same time, I read Motherless Daughters: Legacy of Loss by Hope Edelman. What I recall now, years later, is how typical my life was; I made the kinds of choices women make who lose their mothers during adolescence. That comforted me. She also said that for women who lose their mothers when they are young, that loss is one of the defining moments of their lives. And that has been true for me, too; I am a motherless daughter, and I have never stopped missing my mother. I have never stopped longing for her love — even after realizing that my mother would never have encouraged me to become a painter or to become a deeply spiritual person, two movements which give my life its deepest meaning.

Over the years, I learned to be grateful for the mentors God brought into my life, the women who mothered some part of me — Jessie, my counselor, whom I will always credit with the wholeness I was able to achieve as a result of our work together; Signe, my art instructor, who encouraged me when I entered her class with only curiosity, but no experience; Darlene, the co-worker, who listened with infinite patience as I wrestled with the life challenges I imagined I would have shared with my mother had she lived; and so many others over the years. And now, one of those precious, precious women is dying.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis — her lung tissue is thickening, so her brain and organs aren’t getting the oxygen they need. She’s been housebound for weeks, and the oxygen she’s being given has been increased. Most recently, the decision was made to begin administering morphine to help her body relax, because it naturally fights for the oxygen  it is not receiving. My heart is breaking.

Wanda, a Lutheran pastor, was my spiritual mother. I was a deeply spiritual person when I met her, and had a healthy spiritual life, but no one with whom to share my thoughts and ideas. Wanda and I had the discussions that I hungered to have with someone, and out of those conversations — often conducted over white wine (Wanda) and beer (me) — a deep friendship grew, a heart connection that endured even when we were not able to spend time together. We talked once in a while about getting a place together when she retired, but by the time she retired, she also knew she was dying. Like a good mother, a protective mother, she didn’t tell me. She just said she was going to move closer to her sister.

I saw her a few months ago, and was reminded with that visit just how much I love her. When I moved a couple years before she retired to accept a new position, I discovered she is one of those people who isn’t good at keeping in touch. And while I missed her, I always knew that I could visit her and would be welcome, which eased the ache. As time passed, the ache lessened, and I learned to live without her in my life. I continued to pray for her and to love her, but life brings these transitions and learning to accommodate them is part of living.

The visit earlier this year, and the conversation we had, even though her energy flagged after a couple hours, reminded me how very much her friendship means to me. Together, we hatched the idea of reshaping some of her sermons into meditations for a book. Wanda selected the ones she wanted to include, and I have been editing them. I hear her voice in them, and even recognize some of the ideas we discussed. I can remember sitting at a table in the pub that was our favorite getaway and saying, “But, Wanda, think about this: if there hadn’t been a cross, would the resurrection had have the same impact? If Jesus had died of old age or been killed in an accident, would anyone have noticed when he rose from the dead? His death had to be public and it had to be humiliating.” And there it is, in one of her reflections — the question I raised.

And so she lives now with me even as she struggles for each breath and her body is beginning to shut down. I have no doubt that she believes in the resurrection. We spoke of her death a few months ago, and she said, “I truly believe what I have preached at hundreds of funerals; I truly believe in the resurrection and eternal life.” Her sister said that Wanda’s mantra has become, “Life is good, but eternal life is better.”

I know this, too. I have no doubt that our Lord will wrap Wanda in his arms, and say, “Welcome home, good and faithful servant,” because she is a woman who has truly lived the gospels. But I am a selfish, selfish woman. I’m not ready to lose her — not now, the book isn’t done; not now, it’s Christmas.

Not now. But, I know this isn’t in my hands; it’s in God’s hands, and I must trust God to give me the grace to let her go with joy when the time comes. Until then, I reserve the right to cry.


Kindness Matters

I’ve read the article from The Atlantic three times. Titled “Masters of Love,” it explores the dynamic that research suggests may be key to marital happiness — kindness. Apparently, partners who show an interest in one another, give their partners the benefit of the doubt, and share each other’s joys have a 97% chance of having a marriage that lasts and of being happy in that marriage.

One thought strikes me every time I read this: ALL relationships benefit from kindness. Without kindness, there’s not much hope.

I know I go back to this article over and over again because I keep looking for the answer to my question: How do you turn a significant relationship around when kindness went out the door years ago? I’ve been worn out by one such relationship. I don’t want to end the relationship, but I’ve been treated such contempt and such disrespect on such a consistent basis for so long, I just feel like walking away.

On a good day, there’s cool courtesy mixed with snide barbs. On a bad day, there’s outright hostility. Often, situations escalate beyond comprehension out of nothing.

A couple weeks ago, just to make conversation, I notified her that my supervisor — someone she knows — had resigned. I was sorry to see him leave, but also understood the reasons for his choice. She didn’t; I defended him — and BAM! The whole thing spiraled out of control. When I saw a very familiar pattern unfolding, I tried naming the no-win dynamic and asking her to stop. I tried changing the topic. I tried explaining that I had just received news that a friend in hospice wasn’t doing well, and asked her to show some compassion. The situation just kept escalating.

Eventually, I received this text: “You are a self-centered individual. I can’t believe I have even attempted a relationship with you. You can stop communicating with me. Ever.” It’s a disturbing message, but I find myself wondering if that might not be best for both of us.

Obviously, there’s a tremendous disconnect between the way she sees me and the way I see myself. I don’t see myself as self-centered or narcissistic (another of her favorite descriptors lately). I suspect that what she’s really saying is this: “I don’t get from you what I need from you.” I will openly admit that at my age, I have physical limitations that prevent me from being as active as I was at 30 or 40. However, I don’t believe that knowing one’s limitations makes one either self-centered or narcissistic. I think it’s healthy and appropriate.

I will also admit that I have probably withdrawn emotionally in recent years. I doubt if I’ve had a dozen conversations with her in the last three years that didn’t involve criticism expressed with greater or lesser degrees of contempt. I have to give myself a pep talk every time I’m going to see her. Breathe deeply. Don’t get defensive. Show an interest in her, but be careful with the way you express your interest. Look down and not at her if you have any concerns, because if she reads anything in your face, she’ll jump all over you. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. Breathe deeply. That’s not good. It’s hard to be loving and supportive when so much energy is tied up in protective mechanisms like that.

So, at present, we’re at an impasse. I can’t change the way she sees me, and I can’t change the way she speaks to me. I’m sure she would say that I should change, but when I reflect on the choices I have made, I believe they are healthy and appropriate. I’ve established appropriate boundaries. I don’t say in anger what I wouldn’t say over a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I keep showing up and making an effort, even though I have been deeply hurt by some of the things that have been said.

But, now I’ve been told to stop showing up. I could say yet again, “She was speaking in anger and didn’t mean it.” Or I could listen to what she says and honor her request. When I consider what led to this communication embargo, I suspect that might be best. I refused to apologize for her thoughts; she insisted I apologize not for what I said or for what I meant by what I said, but for what she decided I meant; she refused to consider the possibility that I meant something entirely different.

That’s not reasonable. That’s not fair. And, it’s certainly not kind. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the long run, but I do know that unless kindness becomes a key component of this relationship, it will not be a relationship that brings either of us joy or enables either of us to feel loved.

If that’s to be our future, maybe walking away is best.

A Sound Eye

The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is Sound,
Your whole body will be filled with Light;
But if your eye is Bad,
Your whole body will be in Darkness.
And if the Light in you is Darkness,
How great will the Darkness be.
(Matthew 6:22-23, NAB)

Light and darkness.

Over and over, I return to Psalm 139:12 (“Darkness is not dark for you, and night shines as the day”) and John 1:5 (“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”). I am comforted by these verses. Encouraged. And reminded that I am called to be a beacon of light.

I have also come to understand why I was traumatized by the results of the election. Yes, part of it was the way it acted as a trigger to a past event. But, part of it has to do with core values, with the lamp of my body, with the way I see things.

To me, money is a tool, no more and no less. I can use knitting needles and a yarn to make a sweater, or I can use money to buy a sweater; either way, I have a sweater. Because money has no value for me beyond its use — I don’t measure my worth by my income, I don’t feel a burning need to accumulate wealth, I don’t even understand the decisions of those who have a dollars and cents bottom line — greed is incomprehensible to me.

When the Lord gave the Israelites manna in the desert, he said to them, “Gather it that everyone has enough to eat” (Exodus 16:16) — everyone. In other words, take only what you need. In this world, people need different things. I, for example, need to have tools for writing and creative expression; only another artist would need paint, brushes and easel in the same way that I do. I’m so fearful of not having a journal with which to untangle my thoughts and feelings, I have a shelf of blank books, and pens sitting in jars and cups all over my apartment. I may, in fact, have more pens and pencils in one room than most people have in their entire houses. I need to write; I find my way to the truth by writing. But, I have no need for a huge flat-screen TV — and so I have a smaller second-hand set which I use to watch DVDs.

Taking only what you need isn’t about taking exactly what others have; it’s about knowing what you need and being satisfied with having that need fulfilled. The Israelites were also told not take more than they needed, but “some kept a part of it over until the following morning; it became wormy and rotten” (Exodus 16:20). I strongly suspect, since God does tend to be fairly consistent about some things, that’s what happens to those whose actions are motivated by greed. Inside, they become rotten.

(Please note: I said those whose ACTIONS ARE MOTIVATED BY GREED. I’m not talking about wealth; I’m talking about actions and motivations. Wealth is a gift, like other gifts, and can be used for the common good in ways too myriad to delineate here. Wealth, in and of itself, is entirely separate and different from actions that are motivated by greed.)

My suspicions are based on the way Jesus reiterated this idea in his ministry. He taught his disciples to pray for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11); to trust in God’s providential care (Matthew 6:25-34). He cautioned them against becoming obsessed with accumulating wealth, saying, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21). I suspect that is why he said, after the rich young man went away sad, “it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). I suspect Jesus was saying, in effect, wealth can become a god when your identity is tied to taking more than you need.

So what matters to me if money doesn’t? People matter; relationships matter; human dignity matters. I firmly believe that you should treat all people with respect whether you like them or not. Period. Non-negotiable.

Just as greed is beyond my comprehension, racism and bigotry and misogyny and all of those other attitudes and behaviors that deny the dignity of each human being are beyond my comprehension. For me, that is a darkness which must be resisted at all costs. For me, that is the face of evil. That is why the election results have been so traumatizing; for me, a great cloud of darkness has spread across the land.

Am I a prophet? Will time show that my fears were warranted? Or am I wearing the blinders of political bias?

Time will tell; time always tells the story and reveals the truth. As this story unfolds, I ask God for a sound eye, so that my body may be filled with light, and I ask for the grace to to be a beacon of light, living my core values regardless of what the future holds. As this story unfolds, I ask God for the grace to trust him not only with each day, but also with the big picture.

As this story unfold, I also ask for the grace to remember each and every day that God is good.

I Finally Understand

To date, I have found two things for which to thank Donald Trump:

  1. For the first time in years, some Republicans broke ranks during the election and engaged in something which could be interpreted as bi-partisan activity. Once upon a time, the Democrats held a position and the Republicans held a position, and the two sides got together to find a working compromise that was good for America. It’s been years since that’s happened, which has not been good for America. Strength comes from standing on common ground, not from polarizing issues.
  2. I finally understand why folks wield the Word of God like a weapon against those who hold positions contrary to their own.

I tend to think God speaks to each of us in a voice we can hear and understand. I also tend to take St. Paul quite literally when he writes (in Romans and I Corinthians) about the body having many parts. My bone-deep acceptance of this has been reinforced by personal experience: I have also seen the way folks with different skills and perspectives can contribute to a common good.

In addition, some of the finest people I know hold political opinions that are different than my own. I can’t say I understand their perspective, but I can say that knowing them, I trust they are voting for what they believe is best. Since — as I just said — I believe we contribute to the common good because of our differences, I trust their judgment.

However, in the past couple weeks, I’ve had to delete whole sections of blogs I’ve written. I have lifted verses from the gospels I love, and I have bludgeoned Trump supporters with them, laying out with logic that was irrefutable — to me — how they had transgressed the Word of God. And then, I remembered some of the folks I love who are good — truly good — church-going people who love God every bit as much as I do, and (in all likelihood) voted for Trump, and I have deleted those passages.

It shocks me and it shames me that I have resorted to a practice I abhor!

Jesus said quite clearly and irrevocably, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matt. 7:1-2, RSV). It’s a constant battle for me not to slip into the habits of my childhood home, where my dad’s unspoken rule of thumb seemed to be: “If you can’t belittle someone, don’t bother opening your mouth.” However, I fight that battle because I believe we should treat all people with respect whether we like them or not.

And yet, for the past couple weeks, I’ve been so overwhelmed by helplessness and grief that I didn’t have the energy to fight that battle. Even worse, I have been tempted to use something I love to injure others. I understand now how helpless and vulnerable those who bash others with the Word must feel. They think that if God is on their side, their opinions will matter more, their fears will be justified, and they will find a safe place on which to stand.

But, it really doesn’t work that way. God loves all of us, but he did not create us with cookie cutters. He created us to be unique and different, and that means we’re going to find ourselves encountering people and situations which are uncomfortable sometimes. We can only increase our comfort at these times by placing our trust in God; attacking others will only increase our discomfort. I know this, and I am grateful I’ve found enough peace in recent days to remember this, but I’m also grateful I’ve learned a lesson that will increase my compassion.

I reserve the right to disagree with those who actually believe Trump has something positive to offer our nation, and I reiterate my commitment to bear witness to his presidency. However, as we move  relentlessly toward what I suspect will be one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history, I will pray every day for the grace to be a beacon of light and only light. I will pray every day for the grace to write honestly, but not hatefully. I will pray every day for the grace to love all of my neighbors — all of them, not just those who agree with me.

And, I will pray for the grace to place my trust in God.


My Life Has Already Changed

I received a text message this weekend which I failed to acknowledge. I couldn’t decide whether the sender was incredibly stupid or simply insensitive. Had I been able to decide, I’m not sure I would have known what to say.

She thought that I would be amused by a meme about Hillary Clinton going to prison.

Really? Did she fail to realize that only a mysogynist Trump supporter would be amused by that? Did she fail to grasp the simple fact that I am not a Trump supporter, and unlike her, I stand in solidarity with other women so that we are not victimized by the kind of thinking which condones sexually assaulting women?

With the meme, she sent a quip (which I can’t quote verbatim because I deleted it to remove the temptation to use the sharp tongue I inherited from my dad). She wrote something to the effect that my life wouldn’t change as a result of the election. She either hasn’t checked the news since the election — or has managed to ignore the stories which don’t fit into her view of the world. My world has already changed.

Here are a few of the headlines from today alone:

  • Hate, harassment incidents spike since Trump election (CBS – credible news source)
  • Alt-Right Exults in Washington with a Salute of “Heil Victory” (New York Times – credible news source) [In case the sender of this weekend’s text message is as ignorant of history as she is of the news: the Nazis used the salute “Heil Hitler” and killed millions in gas chambers.]
  • The election is getting people uninvited to Thanksgiving (USA Today – credible news source)
  • Trump’s business empire raises concerns about foreign influence (Washington Post — credible news source)

This election wasn’t about business-as-usual politics. This election, more than ever before, was about values. Human decency vs. greed. Love vs. hate. Hope vs. fear.

Fortunately, I’ve read and watched “Lord of the Rings.” Fortunately, I have lived the passion of Christ more than once in my live. Fortunately, I know that darkness is not dark to the God who is love (Psalms 139:12). I will fast and I will pray for our nation, and the people of our nation, but I will not turn a blind eye.

I will not pretend that life has not changed. I will bear witness, and I will use my First Amendment rights over and over again to do so.

Technicolor Dream Shawl

In my wildest dreams, I would not have guessed  I knew so many people who would happily get in bed with the KKK. I would never have guessed I would find friends supporting someone who boasted about assaulting women.

I feel as though I have walked into a Salvador Dali painting or an episode of the “Twilight Zone.”

I don’t know if I will ever get past the denial stage of the overwhelming grief which consumes me. I don’t know if I want to. If the intensity of my grief is any indication, the anger unleashed were I to move beyond denial could be incredibly destructive. My tongue remembers how to cut to the bone; that’s part of the legacy of growing up with verbal abuse — I know how to wound with words.

Last night, as I continued binge-watching “Bones,” a delightful, good-always-triumphs-over-evil television series (which, sadly is ending just when we need its hopeful message most), I decided my next knitting project will be a technicolor dream shawl. I purchased some variegated yarn a while back to make slouch hats for a family member who was undergoing chemo, and have some yarn left. I realized I could use it to knit a crazy shawl as a quiet act of protest.

The shawl would remind me of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and the hope it gave me through one dark winter.

Theater had not been part of my life before I was assigned to review performances at the Black Hills Playhouse in South Dakota’s Custer State Park. I had attended a couple performances when I was young, in the pre-wireless microphone days, and couldn’t hear enough of the dialogue to enjoy them (one of the disadvantages of having a hearing disability).

Wireless mikes changed my experience, and amazing performances at the Playhouse enchanted me. I didn’t realize, though, until months later how deeply the psyche can be affected by theater.

One of the performances I saw (more than once) was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” In the months that followed, when my granddaughter was abused at daycare and was hospitalized as a result, when I found myself unable to find work after leaving a workplace due to bullying, when I watched people I loved deal with difficult situations, I found myself over and over humming songs from “Joseph” and finding comfort in those songs.

Remembering “Joseph” also helped me to remember the story of Joseph from the Bible (Genesis 37, 39-47). He was sold by his brothers! He was falsely accused of rape and imprisoned; he was forgotten by someone he helped to gain freedom. Year after year, he was pounded by adversity — but in the end, God lifted him up.

In the end. I must remember this is not the end. I must remember that dark is not dark (Psalm  139:12) to  the God who is love. I must remember that all the dark times in history have passed and this will, too.

To help me remember, I will knit, and to help me remember, I will wrap my shawl around me like hope. To help me remember — because remembrance is all some of us will have in the coming days. Remembrance and faith in a God who is love.

Manna in the Desert

This is your brain.

This is your brain on drugs.

[Sizzling sound as an egg gets fried.]

That commercial — which I seem to recall watching while I was growing up — prevented me from using drugs — no matter how bad life got. And it got pretty bad.

I was an appalling maladapted child. I strongly suspect that had Asperger’s syndrome been around back then, someone would have attached the diagnosis to me. I didn’t fit; I didn’t understand the social dynamics of my peer group, and as a result had few friends.

My home life didn’t help, but that’s a story for another time. Mom’s death, when I was a senior in high school, was more or less the coup de grace of any hope I might have had of anything resembling a normal life — though I didn’t know it at the time. Only with 20/20 hindsight can I see how grief, poor parenting, and the demon that inhabited my life, preventing me from connecting in meaningful ways with others, worked together, causing me to stumble and to fall over and over.

I struggled to get through college. Failed in my attempts to find a life partner, a companion for the journey. Lost job after job. But over and over, I picked myself up. Over and over, I put one foot in front of the other. Through it all, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I am an intelligent, creative woman.

I knew I was intelligent because following one of my suicide attempts — there were two — a battery of tests was administered. I learned that my IQ was in the 136-142 range, not freaky smart, but above average. And, I learned that it’s fairly common for bright people to be socially inept. I found comfort in that, and made peace with my inability to connect with others. 

I knew I was creative because (a) something in me is driven to create beauty, and (b) I am a published poet and my paintings have been exhibited in public venues.

Because both intelligence and creativity are expressions of mental activity, I have — for the most part — protected my mind, my brain. No drugs and, apart from a couple self-destructive periods in my life, little alcohol. I believed that as long as I could think, I would be OK, because I could find a way to move forward regardless of what happened to me.

When you value the mind, you also value the way the mind works. You value higher level thinking skills and you hone them. You learn to see patterns and to draw conclusions from those patterns. You learn, as the saying goes, to see the writing on the wall.

What the writing on the wall tells me now fills me with grief — and anger. I can’t even pray — not in words, at least. But that precious mind of mine brings comfort, recalling passages of Scripture and lessons I have learned. Chief among them is this: manna in the desert. God provided the Israelites with food to eat one day at a time — he led them with a pillar of fire and fed them — one day at a time. 

That’s how I am going to get through the next four years — one day at a time. I have to turn away from the writing on the wall and turn my eyes toward God. Yes, there will be inordinate suffering — how can it be otherwise? — and the odds are that many of those who suffer won’t even realize they brought it on themselves, because they allowed themselves to be programmed with misinformation. 

But, I do not have to let the ugliness shape me. I can turn my eyes toward the God who is love, and I can allow his light to fill me. Filled with his light and his love, I can — one day at a time — find small, hopeful, life-giving ways to battle the darkness. I can trust that this darkness is not dark to him (cf. Psalm 139:12), and he will lead me — one day at a time.

Manna in the desert. One day at a time.

Manna in the desert.