Our Dangerous World

We live in a bleak world right now — bleak, because the ground beneath our feet is shifting; bleak, because the winners and losers are easy to identify, but more often than not, the true enemy is within; bleak, because we are increasingly isolated from one another.

Today, as I cleaned my kitchen, I was thinking about a political discussion I’ve been having with a friend. At one time, we agreed about most things. However, as our ideas have been influenced by different information sources, we have grown apart.

On a personal level, this has been difficult. Shared values create a strong foundation for friendship, and ultimately, politics is about values. What do you believe is important? How do you believe our nation’s resources should be invested? What legacy do you want to leave for future generations?

When that foundation is damaged, everything changes. The sanctuary of frank conversation no longer exists. The habit of easy discourse and laughter must be broken so new patterns of interaction can be developed that respectfully circumvent topics leading to discord. Underlying those efforts is the fear that even prayer and good intentions won’t be enough to salvage something.

As I was mulling this over, I found myself thinking of a movie from the 1990s called “The Swing Kids.” Set in Nazi Germany, it is about the friendship between three young men. They all love jazz — two love dancing; one is handicapped, but is an amazing musician.

Because jazz is verboten — forbidden — they each encounter problems with the authorities. One, the handicapped musician, ends up killing himself. One of the dancers is influenced by the materials used to indoctrinate Hitler’s Youth and embraces Nazi ideals. The other is repulsed by his experiences and makes a public statement of opposition by jazz dancing at a dance hall. He, of course, is arrested.

It’s easy with the 20/20 hindsight of history to know which one made the right decision — the young man who was repulsed by Nazi ideals. But, we don’t yet have 20/20 hindsight about the times through which we are living. We don’t know how the nationalism — so like that which led the world into war in the 1930s and 1940s — will shape our world in its current incarnation.

What we do know is that we can all be pawns of powers which hide behind the curtain and manipulate us with messages. The Internet makes it easy. Any individual can put any idea out there and be believed. The idea doesn’t have to be true. The idea doesn’t even have to be plausible. The idea only needs to resonate with a few people who pass it on to others and suddenly it is being embraced as real and true.

As a person who works professionally with words, this dynamic scares the living bejesus out of me. If we can’t trust the written word, what can we believe?

I try to stick to mainstream news sources — reading both those which lean left and those which lean right to have a more balanced perspective. By doing so, I hope to avoid the greatest risk of being manipulated, but even then I am not immune. A while back a video clip taken out of context made the news. As the full story emerged, the incident reflected bad judgment, but not the message it had been edited to imply.

I had jumped on the bandwagon of consternation, and experienced remorse for doing so. That raised alarm bells for me. If I — alert to the dangers posed by the Internet these days and taking preventative action — can be so easily misled, how might others who are less cautious be influenced? And how might they act on what they believe to be true?

That’s what frightens me the most. How might people act on what they believe to be true?

We live in volatile times. Gun violence is becoming normalized. Elected officials role model bullying. Changing weather patterns are creating personal stress on wide swaths of the world’s peoples. Making things worse, the Internet seems to fan sparks into fire all over the place.

I don’t know what we can do on the personal level to address any of the big problems, but I refuse to concede that nothing can be done. Maybe we can at least be kind to one another. Maybe we can hold our friends in our hearts with love, even when we have differences of opinion. Maybe we can resist all that threatens to destroy us by doing good — in our families and in our communities, knowing that by doing so we send ripples of hope into the world.

Maybe it will help. Maybe it won’t, but at least we’ll be making an effort to shine light into the darkness of these times.

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No Fool like an Old Fool

Everything is a matter of perspective. The kaleidoscope on my prayer desk reminds me of this. The mirrors refract images of the objects contained within. Shift the kaleidoscope, the pieces shift and the pattern changes.

With physical kaleidoscopes, the patterns are always beautiful. In life, shifting patterns can break your heart — show you things you don’t want to see. I know; I sit here bleeding all over the carpet — metaphorically. I can’t afford to replace the carpet in my rented apartment, so I am careful not to damage it in any way.

I wish I were as careful with my heart, with my life, with the people in my life. I am not prone to falling in love at the drop of a hat. I’ve had several sexual liaisons over the years — though none within the past 20 years (I’d say 30 years if I could just forget that guy who weaseled his way into my life because he needed admiration and I have a penchant for appreciating others) — which created that artificial bond that replicates but is not love.

Consequently, having never loved, I eventually arrived at the conclusion that (a) I was incapable of love and/or (b) I was not lovable. I don’t know exactly when that happened. Before I recognized imitation love for the fiction it was, I imagined I could love anyone. A couple abusive husbands and several disappointing pseudo-relationships later, my attitude had changed. I went through a phase where I believed that I had simply become involved with the wrong men, and still thought “someday” was possible. That gently slipped into an acceptance of the single life.

I loved my friends — primarily women. I loved my daughters — definitely women. I adored my granddaughters — girls rather than women. I slipped into a casual, bantering manner with men, and entered into a love affair with God. I spent long hours in prayer and meditation, allowed my heart and mind to be transformed by that relationship. I slowly began to craft a life with faith at its center.

Then I started working on a project for a friend and fell head over heels in love with her brother — want to spend my every waking moment with him love, can’t sleep at night because I am thinking of him love love, imagining the wedding before I knew his middle name love. It was crazy-making and wonderful all at the same time. I would listen to love songs and dance around my apartment, dreaming of him.

For the first time in my way-too-long life, the chemicals unleashed by physical intimacy were not leading me into an inappropriate relationship. (If God is truly merciful, and I make it into heaven, I am going to ask my sainted mother what she was thinking when she told me, after I was sexually molested at the age of 12, that a man grabs a woman to show he likes her. That was poor sex education.)

For the first time in my life, I was in love — no reservations love — with a man simply because he was so incredibly amazing. Smart and funny. Hard-working and responsible. Kind and generous. When we were together, I didn’t feel old and fat and ugly; I felt alive and appreciated. Before long, the hours we talked when we were together were extended by hours of conversation on the phone.

I jumped in with both feet. As much as time allowed, I started doing things I might do if we were together, weaving my life into his as much as circumstances allowed. I didn’t notice for a long time that he had drawn a line — you can come this far and no farther. I like you, but I do not love you. We are friends, but we will not have a life together.

I didn’t notice, and then the kaleidoscope shifted and a shaft went straight through my heart. I noticed. Mystery writers use the intuitive way the human mind creates patterns as a plot device which enables the detective — often amateur — to solve the crime which drives the plot. Of course, those new patterns often lead the crime-solver into danger. As an avid mystery reader, I should have recalled this, but I didn’t.

I withdrew the shaft from my heart, and probably severed the chances of crafting something different, more realistic and balanced. I will miss the gravelly sound of his voice at night, the chuckle of his amusement tickling me into laughter, the peace of knowing there is always someone just a phone call away who will listen to anything I have to say. I will miss the generous friendship that was faithful enough, steadfast enough to hold firm when I was lost in a dream. And, I will miss loving him.

´╗┐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.