Saturday, February 28, 2009

Foggy brain

Last Saturday on the flight home from LA, my friend K and I were in a petrie-dish.  In the row directly behind us was a pre-teen who blew his nose, snorted, sniffed and coughed all the way up the Pacific coast.  In front of us was an older man whose coughs shook the very floor beneath us.  We looked at each other at one point and grimmaced, and the woman on the other side of me (who was from the same small Tlinget village in SE Alaska we went three years running a decade ago--she was sure surprised that we knew where Hoonah is!) shook her head in dismay. "You know what's coming," she said.  Prophetically. 

So I have a cold.  A sneezing, sniffling, runny nose and full sinuses cold.  And it really, really annoys me.  I hate that the stale, closed up spaces on airplanes are breeding grounds for germs. Remember the days when there were smoking sections on airlines?Why can't those who are sick be regulated to a separate section at the back of the plane.  My mother-in-law used to say reflexively every time a person sneezed around her, "Twelve feet", for the distance those little cold germs flew if a person didn't cover her mouth. There would have to be some kind of enclosure for the infected, and a flight attendent would have to wear masks in order to serve honey-lemon tea and saline rinses. But the rest of us, who were FINE!!!--before getting on the plane, would still be healthy when we get off.

Yeah, I hate colds.  I don't get them very often, and I'm quite a whiner when I do.  I live with physical pain all the time. Nerve pain, back pain, migraines.  Yes, you might say I'm a connoisseur of pain.  I can judge qualitative and quantitative differences the aches in my body like I had a phd in hurting.  But I'm telling you, this stinkin' common cold does me in. Not just because I'm carrying around wads of used and unused tissue (hopefully keeping them separated...!), and my nose is raw, but because it affects the inside of my brain as well.  I feel like I'm thinking in slow motion.  And that just bugs me.

It does make me wonder, though, about what it would be like if I had to live in a fog all the time.  Like my mom (which is pretty terrible fog) or Beve's dad, whose fog is a lot more spotty.  I don't let myself worry about the idea of dementia but of course, it's a possibility.  I listen to my mom now, and try to imagine what it would be like if all I had was this single moment, nothing else.  We all only have this moment in one sense.  We live one moment at a time, one metaphoric foot in front of the other on the long continum of life.  But in another sense every moment is built on the past.  I carry my story with me in a large chest of memories in my head.  I am the sum of those moments, and they play on every decision, every action.  Every thing I've ever done is there to one extent or another.  This is not true of a person with Alzheimers.  And, perhaps, that lies in wait for me.

I've always thought the hardest thing would be to no longer have faith.  To not remember God.  I've imagined that when everything else disappears, that would stay--if that is really at the core of a person, I mean. But I look at Mom and know that the very idea of God is beyond her comprehension.  She doesn't remember a person exists when they walk out the door of her room, let alone a person she's never seen.  A year ago, Mom was totally pre-occupied by studying the Bible.  She has a plethora of notebooks which are filled with her responses to, or simple copying of Biblical texts.  Now she cannot read at all.

But here's the thing--God doesn't count her inability to know Him now against her.  He knows her.  When she cannot say His Name, He can say hers.  When she cannot pray, He prays for her.  And for me, today, when most of what's in my head is junk that shouldn't be there (probably physically and spiritually, come to think about it), He knows my name as well.  He knows who I am and what I'm capable of.  Probably what I'm capable of is more than I know--but that's a thought for another day.  At the moment, I need to find some more Kleenex.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tipping the scale

So I've been itchy, sniffy and cranky this week (not necessarily in that order, but at the moment my stupid back is driving me nuts, so that's most on my mind).  When I am cranky, my first target tends to be the legal giant whom I live with.  Our kids run for cover, but he stands and takes it, like the man he is.  Says things like, "Guess I'm in the doghouse again," which doesn't actually do much for my mood, though if I was quick-witted enough, I might toss him a blanket and send him out the door to the actual snow-filled doghouse on the back deck.  Unfortunately, I don't think of this at the right moment.

My attitude, as crummy as it's been (you try living in snow after a week in Paradise, see how you like it!), has made me think of lists.  Now, I like to say that I don't keep lists, that I don't take notes about people I love and make checkmarks off against them when they mess up.  But that's a lie.  I keep lists.  We all do.  I know the tiny things the Beve does that always annoy me, and the things our kids don't do that make me mad as well.  I could type out those lists without even thinking.  Things like leaving condiments on the counter after using them, hanging towels over the backs of dining room chairs.  Being late--that's written in giant letters on my list.  Just ask him.  In fact, Beve's sense of timing and mine are so different that I go to my default mode of annoyance so quickly, that sometimes I get mad when he isn't late at all.

Just tell me, if I didn't keep lists, how could I ever pepper my sentences with "always" and "never" the way I do? And what would I do with those spaces if I stopped using such absolutes?  No, don't answer that.  I'm not proud of this tendency in me, but I have to tell you, I don't think I'm alone.  I think list-keeping is part of the human condition. 

But I keep other kinds of lists as well.  Lists of all the things Beve does that amaze me, the traits I so admire in him I can hardly believe such a good, kind, thoughtful man is the one I share my life with.  The way he goes out of his way to care for others, taking them food, or other treats. The way he's such an intentional friend.  For instance, he decided that for Lent this year, he would contact one person from his past every single day.  He started yesterday by calling his high school basketball coach, who always called Beve a 'rabble rouser,' and 'hawn-yowk' (sp?).  And when it comes right down to it, the lists don't balance.  Who the Beve is far outweighs who he isn't.

Here's the other truth.  The deeper truth. The Psalmist asks the pertinent question: "If He kept a record of sins, who could stand?" I know that when I'm so grumpy, it's usually (always?) about me.  If I began to list the flaws in myself, that even Beve overlooks, it'd be so lengthy I'd run out of paper. To think of what God sees...well, it makes me shudder!  The thing is, God has a list too.  He knows everything I am, everything we all are.  He doesn't turn a blind eye to our flaws, He sees them clearly and pointedly.  However, across that list, is a giant red X.  One that says "Cancelled."  It's written in blood, the blood of the Lamb. 

I'm grateful for that list of God's.  Really I am.  I'm glad He really knows what I'm like, that He sees me with all my foibles and flaws--my sins!--and doesn't count that list against me.  He tips the scale by His Love.  It's just that simple.

It's a lifelong lesson to learn to cancel that annoying list, to tip the scale the other way.  But I'm itching to be changed.  Sniffing for transformation, mad to be more like Him every single day. So, at least for this moment, I'll turn my eyes from that list, and look only at the other side of the scales.  Toward the good.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Double take

The sky is that soft gray only this kind of weather can bring to the dark of night; the white stuff glistens in the streetlights and E just said, "Every time I look out the window, I do a doubletake." We just can't believe it's actually snowing.  Here in Western Washington, where we only have about one snowplow for the whole city, and already used up our allotment of sand and salt back in December. And I'm not talking about a few pretty flakes here and there, melting before it lands.  Not it's really coming down, blanketing streets, trees and our big lug, Jackson who doesn't move very quickly and ends up with a thorough coating on his back.  Are you kidding me?  I'm still itching and flaking on my peeling back.  My face is tanned and freckled, and that week away made me long for summer.  Somehow I think God got His signals crossed.  He must have thought I was wishing for a white Christmas.  Oh that's right, we had a white Christmas this year.  And we got so sick of snow, we were over it far before it melted.  The last thing we expected when we woke up in typical 40 degree rain, was that before the sun set, the temp would be in the twenties and the rain would have morphed to hale then snow in rapid succession (in fact, while I was standing outside in my hooded sweatshirt, throwing tennis balls for Jamaica!).  Now we have over two inches, and I'm not sure it's close to stopping.

Can I just say, I'm wishing I was still in Mexico. 

Strong shoulders

Yesterday was my youngest sister's birthday. So, even though I'm a day late and a couple hundred dollars short (as usual), I thought I'd write a few words about her.

When we were kids, she was much younger than me.  Enough younger that we were never in the same school, never shared a room, never played together, unless I needed her to be a prop or something.  By the time I was in high school, she was the same size as me, and sometimes might have borrowed my clothes without asking.  These are the things one remembers--not the times that I might have borrowed something of hers (honestly, I can't think of what that might have been at this point, but I'm not putting it past myself.  I borrowed plenty from everyone else).

We might have continued to be casual sisters, with an indefinite relationship, but for one thing.  God knew that I needed her in my life, knew I'd be better with her a friend as well as a sister, so He helped orchestrate the one thing that would draw us together.  Children.  Her oldest daughter, SE, is a year + older than E, but the next daughter, L, is merely 6 weeks older than J.  And when she found out she was pregnant with her third, I threw up my hands in horror, hoping (against futile hope, as it turned out) that I wouldn't follow suit once again. Now some of you might think I was actually harboring a hope that I would have that third child, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't.  Sure was shocked to discover, 3 months later, that I would have our last child.  I'm no longer complaining, of course.  SK is a treasure of my life, and it's inconceivable (get it, conceive?) that we might not have had her.  But she was a cousin-twin to RE's son, M, just as J had been to cousin L.

As they grew, of course, these pairs morphed a little.  Being boys, J and M soon became like little puppies wrestling all over the place, grew into the next best thing to brothers.  SK and L are as close as sisters too.  In fact, the girls are all close enough that E lived with L one year, and will be an attendant in SE's wedding in June.

And what these relationships between our kids did was create a friendship between RE and me.  She has strong shoulders, my little sister does, and over the years, has listened to me cry a time or two.  Listened to all the kids who walk through her office door at WSU, and all the ones who walk through the door of her house.  She's 'mothered' my kids, and my brother's kids, as they've studied and worked their way through WSU, being home to them in a place they almost consider home themselves. RE extends grace in the most difficult of circumstances, and always finds an extra chair to sit around their table.  I've been at their home when no fewer than 3 extra people were having their mail forwarded to that address, hanging up their clothes in some makeshift closet.  They pretty much bust at the seams most of the time out at my sister's, and though she actually does crave her own space, the silence of her own thoughts, she continues to serve, and give, and do for others.

And the one she does the most for, besides her own family, is our Mom.  RE has the brunt of the work associated with Mom now.  Mom, who, yesterday, wasn't quite sure she'd ever known the man RE told her had been her husband.  My sister visits Mom 5 days of 7 but every single day, Mom thinks no one has come to see her the whole time she's been in the nursing home (and for her, the nursing home is the ONLY place she remembers being--though it's only been 3 months).  RE goes to doctor's visits with her, intervenes with the aides, witnesses some pretty gruesome things in this aging mother.  And for her part, Mom chides, derides, and cries at RE, takes out all her frustration, all her confusion, all her demented anger on the one person who does the most for her.  That's the way it is with caregivers, I understand.  But it doesn't make it easier for RE.  For me, there's been a release of the anger and pain about how mean and terrible our mother was.  She no longer treats me so poorly.  But RE?  Mom claims to love her most, certainly needs her most, but that way of loving and needing brings a whole lot of pain and difficulty.  I don't envy RE in the least.

It's probably true that her family doesn't think the rest of us understands what RE has sacrificed for all of us.  The work, the psychic anguish, the torture of dealing with Mom.  With all that she was and all that she is. And they're right.  There's no way I could understand.  Not really.  I get to drive away at the end of a visit.  I get to go back to my own life, and only have it weigh on my soul, not on my body.  But I see it.  I see what she does, who she is--for all of us--and there's hardly a way to thank her for it.  I do feel for her, though.  Appreciate her.  Love her.  I'm grateful for this service she does for Mom...for all of us.  It's a job she has by default of geography, but one a lesser person might have run from.  It's a tribute to her strength, to her faithfulness, that she simply lifts her wide shoulders and keeps walking.

When I really think about it, I realize she's like the one person of whom she's the spitting image.  When my little sister looks in the mirror, she sees her daddy's face staring back at her.  It's true, she looks so remarkably like our father that sometimes it makes me flinch--when she moves her mouth a certain way, or when she laughs with those baby blue, crinkly eyes.  But that similarity isn't only skin deep, actually.  She has the strength, the compassion, and the shoulders--both physically and spiritually--of our father.  And he would be very proud.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sabbath

After a week with the Beve, it's always a sharp re-entry when he has to return to work.  Tonight I'm sitting alone because he had to go back to work.  Responsibility didn't wait but piled up on his desk while he was playing in the sun.  Shoot, those piles seem to multiply in the night while only the custodians are in the school.  I wonder if they unlock Beve's door and blow a vacuum in, causing the havoc I've seen a time or two.  It's an explanation Beve would find solace in...rather than the idea that it's his own 'filing system' that causes such chaos.

But either way, he has a whole lot on his plate now--er, make that his desk--and the stress has instantly reappeared on his face.  Kids, teachers, parents, administrators all waiting for him, with expectations and demands.

That's the way life works, isn't it?  While we relax and feast and swim, the world doesn't wait.  We let the tension of our life drift away on the tides, but, like the tides, it comes waving back in to wash over us the moment we step back in the door of our actual lives.  Last week was like time out of time, a space apart, but our real lives didn't disappear just because we were out of cell phone range. Nope, sorry to say, none of it disappears.

Six days you shall labor, God told Adam.  And on the seventh day, on the Sabbath, rest.  It doesn't mean that there is no work to be done, just that we are intentionally allowing that work to wait, while we focus our attention on rest.  I look at this last week and think of it as the Sabbath rest God calls us to, a time to focus our attention on other than work  Focus on ourselves, the natural creation and the holiest of other, the Creator.  Every week, He calls us to set aside a luxury of time to step out of our natural order, to worship, to rest--to be with Him.

But holidays--vacations--can also be sabbath.  They should be!  So the question I have for myself as I sit alone while Beve paws through his responsibilities across town is--did last week honor Him?  Was it vacation or was it a holy Sabbath?  Looking back, there were moments that were as holy as moments come, one in particular. The last night we were in Mexico, as we walked the path winding through the pools at the resort, I felt God touch my shoulder, and tell me to let down the walls I'd kept up all week.  I went to Mexico NOT wanting to talk about the writing grief in my life.  And that desire was honored by Beve and our friends.  By God as well, I think.  But with the tap on my shoulder, He nudged me to speak.  Even if it hurt.

And it did hurt.  More than I expected.  When I finally fully broke down, as I haven't in the last month, that pain caused an awkward silence between us.  Me sniffling, muttering that it was stupid be be crying in public (a typical reaction for me--I really much prefer to do my crying in the shower where no one sees or knows).  But even in the awkwardness, I felt God's presence.  In Beve's touch on my arm, I felt Him, in our friends' unwillingness to speak platitudes or cliches.  In the simple being with me they all were--I felt the Holy presence of God in that.  Sitting at an outdoor Mexican restaurant, the pool lights changing color behind us, I was, suddenly, unexpectedly, experiencing Sabbath rest, and Sabbath worship. Where He is, when He is--at an outdoor table, or in a hushed church--worship is inevitable.  And I felt exactly what He meant Sabbath to make us feel--refreshed and restored. Nothing essentially changed from that moment.  My book is still sitting in an ash heap, my future still murky and painful. And He never promised otherwise.  He doesn't give us Sabbaths in order to miraculously 'fix' whatever went wrong during the week. But that isn't even the point.  Though I'd love to have Him fix my life, what I need more is to for Him to be present in whatever life I have.  So I take joy in such Sabbath rest, and ask Him to work it in me as I press forward into the next season, no matter what it brings.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bologna sandwiches

A week of summer in the middle of dreary winter, that's what Beve and I (and our best friends) had last week.  Every day sunny and 85 degrees, white sand, blue water, sleeping late, eating lots.  It was amazing. In fact, we ate so much guacamole and pico de gallo (chunky salsa to us Americans) we decided we need a moratorium before we even look another corn tortilla chip--it was everything the doctor ordered.  We came home rested, rejuvenated and maybe even sunburned.  The first day there, I might have sat in the pool reading a little long, I might have slathered sunscreen over every inch of my body except my back, I might have gotten the worst (only?!!) sunburn of my life on said back.  And definitely paid the price--part of reentry means I'm peeling and itchy.  No wonder people don't like sunburns (not to mention that whole cancer thing!).

Yes, it was a great week. My natural habitat is definitely water.  Three pools, the Caribbean, a dipping/cooling pool right on our balcony--truly luxurious. Devoured six books, which is my very favorite way of relaxing.  Watched Beve and J climb a Mayan pyramid (which is definitely more relaxing than climbing it myself in the 90 degree sun).  Rode around an island in a convertible VW bug. All in all, it made me think of the analogy I read many, many years ago in Bob Benson's book, Come Share the Being, about being invited to a potluck picnic.  Having nothing to take but a couple of stale slices of bread with one lonely piece of bologna slapped between, a squirt of mustard the only condiment, we pull up to this outdoor feast, where a table is covered with every kind of food imaginable--fried chicken, mashed potatoes, 14 kinds of salad, 27 different desserts.  We stand awkwardly, thinking we can't possibly partake of such a banquet given what we have in the old paper sack in our hands.  But we're handed a plate, a fork and spoon is placed in our fingers, and we're welcomed.  We bring our little pittance and we're given abundance in return.

That's exactly what such a vacation felt like.  Beve and I took our pittance, took our old suits, last summer's clothes, our ratty beach towels, and we were treated like royalty.  Our friends lavished us in ways so profound and humbling, we'll never be able to express our gratitude.  The resort, with its fragrant air, and lush garden, was a little slice of paradise, and the people who waited on us, shuttled us, visited with us, made us simply glad to be part of the human family.  Our bologna sandwich exchanged for a buffet set for a king (We really did eat a royal buffet the first night at about 9:30 pm, when we hadn't eaten since a pastry in Seattle before we flew off.  We were so hungry we didn't even talk to each other at dinner, and Beve, who can really put it away, went back about 4 times!). Truly, it was the most wonderful week.

Am I gushing?

It's a privilege of our lives that we get to experience such vacations. And we don't take them for granted.  And we also don't take for granted that the Kingdom of God is a great banquet, that God takes our pitiful sandwiches and tells us how much He loves bologna, that He lavishes us with His abundance.

The trick for me today, back in the rainy northwest, is to be just as aware, just as grateful for the feast He sets before me in the daily ordinariness of my life.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

And we're off

So we're leaving in an hour or so, and I'll be off line for the next week.  It really hit me how connected I've become in the last year or so.  The last time we went to Mexico, I barely had a cell-phone, let alone a blog. I checked my email every few days whether I needed to or not.  These days, with the blog, the phone, texting, emailing, I'm hooked to one electronic gadget or another most of the time.  I talk to SK a couple times a day, text all three of the kids daily as well. J and I just had a scintillating--though sarcastic--conversation about Planned Parenthood handing out condoms in Red Square at Western Washington University. He said he felt uncomfortable with the whole idea, and I asked him if he'd picked up any.  He said, "36! which might not last the week."  AH J, such a kidder.  He said girls are all over him like he's handing out bread in Russia.  "So many girls, so little time," I answered.

It's going to be odd to be out of communication with them for a week.  Back in the stone age, when I traveled as a single person, I only talked to my family about once every couple months.  Remember the days of postcards and actual hand-written letters with stamps?  But I don't even send postcards any more. After all, usually we beat the mail home.  We've gotten many a card from a person who has been back home for over a week.  What's the point of that, I ask you?  But I will miss knowing what's going on with my kids.  SK just told me that her friends think it's odd that she talks to her mom so often, let alone text.  But, of course, from my point of view, I am thrilled that my kids like talking to me so much, thrilled that they let me into their lives the way they do.

In any case, I think it'll be good to be out of reach of all these things for a while. To reboot, so to speak.  Maybe bring a little spring (summer, I should say--it's 85 degrees in Cancun currently) to the winter of my soul.  I'm praying I return with a glowing tan, and a glowing heart as well.  And, that I have a new cadre of post ideas. So, see you next Sunday (the 22nd--well, what do you know? we leave on Lincoln's birthday and return on Washington's.  That's what I call a presidential holiday).  Hope your week is half as good as mine will be.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Travel lightly

Man, procrastination.  It's really something, isn't it?  I've had basically two things to do all day--clean up the quilt project sitting on the dining room table and packing my stuff.  I really hate packing.  The problem is I take too much stuff.  Or too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of what I actually need.  And generally speaking, I won't know which is which until I get to our destination and discover I put in seventeen sleeveless t-shirts, not a single pair of jeans...or my toothbrush container, so carefully packed, is actually empty.  Why, I think, did I think I'd actually wear the pair of sandals I didn't manage to wear all last summer?

It's easier to put it off.  Back in my youth, before leaving for Europe on my first off-continent trip, I made piles of clothes on a chair in my bedroom.  I bought piles of clothing--all of which co-ordinated--and systematically, carefully, filled the interior-framed backpack my father had bought for me with his 4-digit REI membership number.  Everything I'd need for three months.  Well, except that I had an enormous purse and carry-on.  I got over there and you wouldn't believe the schlepping I had to do with all that cra--er, stuff. It just about did me in.  I ditched belongings all over that continent and still came home stuffed to the gills, barely breathing (though I was in pretty good shape back then).  A year later, when I moved to Holland for six months, one would think I might have learned my lesson. Unfortunately, I'm a tortoise-slow learner.  When Beve and I returned to the states after that sojourn, he was determined that we learn to pack and live lightly.  We had far too much stuff.  In fact, this will tell you about security in the eighties: we actually looked around for likely travelors who might check in one of our extra bags for us.  And had no trouble finding people glad to help. 

Alas, Beve and I didn't ever really learn our lesson.  We just don't have the knack for traveling lightly.  Well, except for the weekend we went over to WSU for E's college graduation.  Late that night, we drove to Spokane, where Beve, J and Grampie were going to spend the night before returning home.  Beve opened the trunk and realized his bag, computer, etc were all sitting in in a car in my sister's driveway in Pullman.  Talk about light living!

But generally, we overpack.  Or at least I do.  I drag along this and that, and forty-seven extra things I just might need.  You never know.  I might need a flashlight. Those extra socks if it's cold at night.  A sweatshirt for late walks on the beach...

You know where I'm going with this, don't you?  I'm like this in life too. I'm always carting around extra luggage.  Having to pay the price of it being too heavy, too full of things I don't need. Moldy old attitudes I continue to hold on to.  The idea that 'this is just who I am...I'm always like this" and can't do anything to change.  That's an beat-up cardboard box, wrapped with string that I lug around like it's the finest corinthian leather.  How ridiculous is that?  Those old wounds of failing in relationships?  The pain my mom caused?  It's a bag with a broken zipper, held together with duct-tape.  No wonder I have back problems from carrying around all this garbage.  No wonder my soul is broken as well.  I've got to learn to travel more efficiently, live lightly.  Trust God to supply all my needs, according to His riches (just the same, I think I'll pack an extra pair of underwear...and I think He'll understand!).

(By the way, I did manage to put away the quilting project--while procrastinating on finishing this post!)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Better with a book

"Life would be better if I'd brought a book with me," E just said.  She's stuck in a recliner with one larger than advertised Springer Spaniel stretched across her lap.  But how profound.  I'm thinking her sentence is as good a motto as I've ever heard--for all of life. Waiting in a doctor's office?  Better with a book.  Sitting at a concert, play, athletic event?  Better with a book.  At a complete standstill in rush hour traffic? Definitely better with a book.  In fact, I have a friend who once drove from North Carolina to Washington State and in the vast, empty middle where the roads run straight for days on end, she drove with a book on her steering wheel.  Now while I wouldn't try this myself, I certainly understand the impulse.  In fact, I can only think of one or two occasions (like one's wedding--or wedding night!) when 'better with a book' would be entirely inappropriate.

This really hits home this morning because in a couple of days, with our closest friends, Beve and I are flying to Cancun for a week.  Yesterday, K called me, wondering what kind of apparel I'm taking.  I had to admit I haven't thought too much about clothing yet.  I tried on a couple of swimming suits, but after the image in the mirror scared me into more gray hairs, I decided to NOT check out last summer's shorts for the time being.  Those pasty white thighs are almost enough to make me cancel the whole thing...!  But I can't put it off any longer.  So cover me, folks, I'm going in--pulling this chubby, pale body from under its winter cloak of knit and into the light of shorts and sleeveless shirts.  Sigh.


What I have done in preparation is stack a pile of books on my nightstand.  Doris Goodwin Kearn's Team of Rivals is on the bottom. It's made the cut, for sure.  It'll be my trip down (and as long as it takes!) reading.  I have a couple of light novels--typical 'beach reads', for when the long hours when K and I sit in the sun.  J and Beve will last with us about half the time.  They both get antsy to 'do' something, but for me, reading is just about the best vacation 'doing' there is.  Sure, they'll both bring books.  Last vacation, J unloaded an entire bookshelf-full from his suitcase.  I'm not sure he finished a single one. And Beve, who rarely manages to finish a single page without falling asleep at home, will ask me to help him find something to read just as we're walking out the door on Thursday (I'm already thinking about what to suggest).  And J ordered a Jerry Sittser book for us to read; we've done this before on trips and it makes our conversational more intentional...though I'm not sure we ever really need it.  We dive deeply pretty easily.  We love to get to the heart of things--what we're doing, what God is doing, where we're hurting, where we are healing.  It's all good.

So, K and I will sit on the beach, or by the pool and we'll pull out our books and dive in.  Every now and then, we'll come up for air, jump into the water to cool off, pick up the conversation where we dropped it in the sand, then eventually bury our heads back in the pages.  It's luxury indeed to read and sit and be together so.

Sure, we'll do other things in Cancun.  We'll have great meals, we'll visit the local markets, see whatever ruins there might be to see, take walks on the beach, sit on the balcony and watch the waves. And all of it will be refreshing, rejuvenating and healing.  Hopefully we'll come home ready to face whatever God and the spring have for us.  I'm looking forward to all of it.  To to going, the being and, especially, the reading.  As E said, life is truly better with a book.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

One person

The one person.  That's who I talked to today...the one person on this earth who really understands me, knows me, gets what I've been going through.  It was such a relief I cried. Lots of people have been very supportive, many have said kind, wise things, and those words mean a lot to me, but this was different.  And I'm not talking about the Beve, even though he's a great friend, and the other half of myself.  I love Beve to pieces, but I learned the first couple years of our marriage that he couldn't fill every need.  He's a very good man, but he is a man.  When I'm hurting, Beve's instinct to fix it.  Before I have the whole paragraph of my feelings out, he's thrown out a couple of practical suggestions that would make things better.  I'm wont to say, "I don't want you to fix me, I want you to listen."  His heart is right, his intentional good, but I have brooding in my DNA. Leaning into pain is part of the process for me--it always has been.

So today I finally had a conversation with the one person who just got it, who didn't try to figure out a solution, didn't try to cheer me up, or tell me that things are going to be better tomorrow.  She just listened, and had a few salient observations to make. "The problem is that you're your father's child.  The idea that worth comes from accomplishment was something you drank in every glass of milk."  As she said that, I began to cry.  That's more true than I've even admitted to myself, more than she even knew.  To not succeed would have been anathema to my father.  "Yes," she said. "You're a failure...we all are."

It's true.  And I know this, not only about myself (which is what I've been focusing on lately) but about every human being who ever lived.  The reality is, we're all a bunch of losers.  Some people just hide that beneath human accomplishments. And I also know--KNOW--that my worth isn't based on what I do or don't do.  Even if I never accomplish anything of value in the world's eyes.  My worth was created in me before I was born.  It's based on who made me, why He made me, who He made me to be.

I feel like something lifted off my chest this afternoon.  Just to be known, accepted, loved as she did.  Just letting me be, not being my cheerleader, just being my friend.  I needed those words today.  I needed this friend, this one person--this god-given person.  And I'm glad I have her.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Holes

Beve just got word that Kyle, the little boy I wrote about a couple of days ago, died a couple of hours ago.  He was lucid until the end, had a chance to say goodbye to his family, and, in the words of the friend who called, "It was actually pretty cool."  It's astounding to think that just a week ago today he was sitting at that basketball game.  But it's been a long, hard battle with this cancer, for he and his family.

It makes me wonder how a parent feels at the end of such a battle.  It seems like the most impossible thing on this earth to have to watch one's child suffer. I only get this in the smallest way: when J was 6 weeks old, he picked up a bug from a child who'd gotten a cold while in England, and my immune system, which I was still passing along to him in his milk, didn't have the antibodies to fight a germ from across the far ocean.  He got sick--then sicker--and we grew more and more sleepless, one night even sitting up with him the entire night so he could breathe upright.  The next day (the third time I'd taken him to the doctor), he was placed in ICU in the children's hospital. It was an unbelievably scary time.  I remember climbing right up into the oxygen-tented crib with him so I could hold him while he slept that first night.  The doctor told me later that he didn't think J would make it through those first twelve hours.  I held his fuzz-covered head and wondered who he'd become when he grew up.  At six weeks, though I barely knew him, the love I had for him was like a noose around my heart.  I couldn't imagine continuing to breathe if he didn't.

Obviously, he survived that scare.  The turn-around was almost as quick as the original dive into illness.  He came home from the hospital in a week, and the only lasting impact was that his high-pitched baby voice dropped about an octave, and never went back up.  He was the only baby I've ever known whose cry was a rich and throaty baritone.

But I was right that I didn't know him.  I think about what it might have been like if he'd been six years instead of six weeks when he got sick.  I think of all the things we learn about our children as they grow.  And how, by the time they're six (or eight, like Kyle), you can tell the real person they are. We could tell J was thoughtful, sensitive, and funny.  Just like he is today.  And I think about what it would have done to our family if he'd died at six weeks.  If I'd had to live my life without him, never knowing him, always marking birthdays, and holidays by his absense as well as the girls' presence.  The hole left by death that--no matter how much time heals--is never filled in.

I'm thinking of this today, thinking of Kyle's family with such a crater in the middle of it now. My heart breaks for them, beginning life post-Kyle. The world is a different place--forever--than it was when they woke up this morning.  It's a world bombed by a crater.  What they choose to do with such a crater is up to them.  Ignore it, make it into an altar?  Fill it with more pain, bitterness and garbage?  Plant new flowers around the edge of it, so that it's turned into something they can look at, enjoy and even find beauty in?

Death is ahead of all of us.  And we live with other kinds of deaths as well.  What will I turn those metaphoric deaths into?  How will I live with those holes in my life?  This is not an abstract problem for me at the moment, of course.  But I also think it's probably not an abstract issue for any of us.  What are the holes in your life?  The gap between what you thought would be and what actually is in your life?  How will you turn them into something beautiful?  And--and this is the clencher--what will you allow those holes in your life to turn YOU into?  Garbage or gardens?

If you think of it, pray for Kyle's family today.  Brother Nick, mom, dad, all those who are intimately impacted by the giant hole left by an eight-year-old boy.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Walking around in clouds

If I lived someplace other than NW Washington, where we only get about 59 days of sun a year, I would have watched that sun rise this morning.  Such an event is definitely worth noting because it's an event far from common in my life.  When I was tumbling out of bed at 4:45 with a headache in full blaze, I was encouraged to think I might watch the sky color up, so to speak.  Alas, in the darkness I couldn't tell there were clouds.  The last couple of days here have been beautiful, ripe with the promise of spring, and just enough clouds so that the sunsets have been magnificant.  Just before stepping into the car to run an errand with Beve and the pups a couple days ago, I took a photo of the brilliantly streaked sky, but didn't manage to save it.  Beve said, "Don't worry, there are plenty more where it came from."  It's true--many nights during the spring and summer, we step out onto our front patio to watch the colors glow across the bay in reflection of the setting sun.  It never gets old to me, God's creative spectacle at the end of day.  I'm grateful we live oriented toward it.  Maybe it's because many more days just fade from gray to black where we live.  Maybe, if I lived in some tropical paradise in the Pacific, my reed-roofed bungalow facing west, I'd get used to--tired of!--the reds, pinks, purples of a setting sun.  It's true that even the most amazing thing can become ordinary, routine, after while.

I was thinking about this the other day, as I watched Beve talk to someone.  That person commented on his beautiful silver hair, and I had a bit of a start.  I've been teasing him for months about his gray hair.  See, last summer, when we were filling out forms to get fingerprinted, we had to describe ourselves physically.  For hair color, Beve wrote, "brown."  Brown?  In his head, maybe his hair seems brown, but ON it, it's definitely salt and pepper.  But until that person commented on how thick and beautiful that hair is, I hadn't really noticed.  Then last night at dinner, as we were talking about the French Foreign Legion (don't ask!), when Beve said maybe he'd sign up, I told him he was too old. And one of our kids said, "If he dyed his hair, he'd pass for young enough."  And then I really looked at him--at his perfectly smooth, unwrinkled, un-baggy face, and thought, "Oh my gosh, he's beautiful." See, I don't really look at Beve very often.  Sure, I notice his clothes (especially the days when I can't believe he put a certain combination together!), and I can tell if his arthritis is hurting him, but to really look, to pay attention to the created Image of God glory that he is--I just don't do this.  Any more than I'd probably notice the colors of the rising and setting sun if I actually saw them daily.

And I think I'm like this in many ways.  I've been so caught up in me lately, I've been walking around in the grayness of a cloudy day, not really looking at anyone or anything except my own sorry self.  And that, my friends, is the sorriest thing of all.  To only see the world out of my own eyes?  To expect everyone around me to notice me, make allowances for me, to care for me--it's my worst self in living color.  The truth is, I'm never more my real self than when I'm so busy caring for others that I don't have time to think about me.  When I'm consumed by, exhilarated by, awed by what God is doing in others' lives--when I'm actively engaged in those lives--Beve's, my kids', whoever!--that I am the least of my concerns.  That's where He wants to get me--all of us--to.  Pulling us out of the clouds, so we can see all of His created glory--human beings, most of all--spread out in front of us.

Only that day dawns to which we are awake, Thoreau said.   Lord, help me wake up.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A roaring lion

In the lower level (er, basement--no windows!) of a medical building is a glassed-in Sleep Study unit.  I had an appointment there this morning.  The doctor (who I swear is the same age as J, and is approximately half my size!) was talkative and cheerful, over-enthusiastic about my being a writer--"Maybe you'll become famous then I can tell people I treated you!"--and had the same malady most doctors have: he thought I was far less intelligent than I am.  Repeated his instructions several times, as if he hadn't been speaking English to begin with, made a diagram of said instructions, then even typed them out for me.  Instructions were as follows:  Don't go to bed until I'm falling asleep in a chair, even if that's 3:30 in the morning, and get back up if I haven't fallen asleep in half an hour. Never read in bed, write in bed, or anything else... Get out of bed the moment I wake up, and, no matter what, don't nap during the day. And stop drinking caffeine. And I remembered them without even looking at his redundant list.

I followed him down the hall to the 'sleep-study' bedroom, where I'll 'get' to spend the night in a couple weeks.  "Come at 8 pm," he said. In the room is a bed, TV and reading lamp. "I thought I wasn't supposed to get into bed until I'm dosing off?" I said. "Don't worry, we'll get you to sleep." "Drugs," I asked. "No," he answered. "But we always get people to fall asleep."  Oh sure, I thought.  I can't get to sleep most nights by 1 in the morning, but I'm supposed to get into bed by 8, watch a little stimulating TV, then drift away at all?  I'll let you know how that goes--on February 26th (or the 27th, I guess); I put it off as long as possible.

Needless to say, I'm skeptical.  Do you know how long I've been reading in bed? I think my mom put me down for naps with a book when I was a toddler.  Writing in my journal? How long have I been able to hold a pencil?  Spending time with the Lord before I go to sleep? I became a Christian 37 years ago, so you do the math!  I wrote most of my book sitting against the headboard of my bed.  I'm telling you, this stuff is written on my DNA.  So for some tiny, (I'm talking skinny) little man to tell me my 'homework' is to follow his instructions...

But I was born compliant (Beve wouldn't agree with this assessment, but I really am. I mean it!), and I do want to sleep more soundly, so I suppose I'll give it all a shot.  I left the office, got in my car, and sat looking at the travel mug I'd brought with me.  I'd intended to stop for a vanilla latte afterwards. And, after that appointment, it was certainly tempting. But, shaking my head, I put the car into gear and drove toward home.  Then, at a specific roundabout corner, veered (almost without thinking), toward a familiar drive-through coffee stand. And I'm telling you, that vanilla latte tasted wonderful. I was tempted, and I caved.

Temptation. "Lead us not into temptation," Jesus tells us to pray, but He can't possibly be implying here that God might, without such a prayer, actually lead us that direction. After all, scripture tells us that God Himself tempts no one ("When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone..." James 1:13), therefore, He doesn't need coaxing to resist tempting us. So on the face of it, this is a pretty strange petition. But the meaning of this word has to do with the temptation inherent in a fallen world.  All of earthly life has temptation in it.  One way or another, our everyday lives 'lead us into temptation'.  Even the right thing can be done for the wrong reason.  So this prayer, in which we beseech God to lead us not into--or away from--such worldly, sinful temptations is entirely appropriate.  Think of Satan asking God for the right to test Job.  Think of Satan testing Jesus in the wilderness, and of Paul asking God to be delivered from the thorn in His flesh, which He knew was a messenger from Satan (2 Cor. 12:7).  Jesus understood that the enemy is a roaring lion who prowls, looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  If Satan has his way with us, we are doomed.  So this prayer is not only entirely appropriate, but actually keeps the roof on our lives.  It keeps us from being attacked by all the powers and principalities that want to war against us.

We live in a world that Satan wants, that he's working overtime to try to control.  Though I know that many people have difficulty believing in Satan and his work against us, that blindness isn't possible for those of us who read the Word, and actually, that disbelief plays right into his hands.  No, we must--MUST--name our enemy, and deal with him.

In a nutshell, the second clause of this petition says what we need from God in terms of Satan--"Deliver us from the evil one."  We need to be rescued. The truth is, God already gave us THE one thing we need to be rescued from such temptation, from the tempter himself.  Jesus Christ is ALREADY victorious over this 'roaring lion.' If we have given our lives to Him, we have triumphed with Christ because of His sacrificial death.

But we still need to pray these words.  Our own sin tempts us, the world tempts us, the enemy tempts us.  I think I need to pray more diligently against the temptations in my life.  I don't have to be overcome with such temptations.  God provides a way out.  "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all.  And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Whether that's about coffee or pornography, sloth or murder, He IS the way out.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A picture

The other night Beve, E and I went to a basketball game at his high school.  The Squalicum boys are ranked first in the state, their only loss to a California team that was first in the nation at the time.  They're pretty entertaining to watch, too--great passes, amazing moves to the hole, heighth and speed exactly where they need it.  But that night, most of my attention was directed at the bench, rather than the court.  See, every game in the league was dedicated to the fight against cancer.  "Coaches against cancer" was the slogan on every coach's t-shirt, and the visiting team that night wore pink socks (I'm thinking that might be part of the reason they lost!).  And on every team's bench sat a person who had been touched by the disease.

Beve had told me who the guest coach was supposed to be that night, but when we walked into the gym, my breath caught.  Right at the end of the bench sat a small wheelchair with a frail 8-year-old boy sitting in it.  Beside him sat his parents.  This little boy has been struggling with deadly brain tumors for the last two years, and just last week, after taking a pan of cinnamon rolls to the family, Beve told me the end is near.  Very near.

But that night, that little boy who can no longer hear very well, nor see much better, can't walk, nor speak clearly, called the first play in the game (a three-pointer), drank orange soda and was an enthusiastic coach, for all his handicaps, giving high-fives to players, cheering them on.  His mom spent the entire game with a white board, telling him the head coach was yelling in the huddle, what others were saying to him.  His father took pictures of him leaning close to his momma, bent down to lift him up for the national anthem, and, at one point I watched as little Kyle held his hand to his daddy's cheek, tenderly stroking it.  Between them, those parents were ever attentive.  By the end, I think they had more pictures of him than I've taken on a month's trip to Europe.

But here's the thing:  those two adults are divorced.  In fact, though I don't know the details, it was a rather acrimonious split.  But a few weeks ago, the dad moved back into the family home for the duration.  And--even his girlfriend has helped out, and stayed with them at times.  Whatever was between those two people, whatever anger, hurt, bitterness they held/hold, they've put it aside to love their little boy (and his hurting 10-year-old brother!).  To watch their son breathe for the final days of his life. I can't say, of course, that they've forgiven each other, but I'm telling you, from where I sat, they were as good a picture of it as I've ever seen.

I think about the petition in the Lord's prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,"  In a life and death situation, the decision to put aside grievances might be an easier thing than it is at other times, but even in the most ordinary moments, it's central to becoming who God meant us to be--loving, generous, intent on others rather than ourselves. To pray for--and receive--forgiveness is the most transforming thing that happens to us.  IN OUR ENTIRE LIVES.  It's also the boldest petition in the prayer.  I'm not overstating this.  "While we are alive, there is not a single hour, day or night, when we are not a debtor," the theologian Origen said.  "Forgive us our debt," Jesus tells us to pray.  We have to admit we are debtors--sinners--before we can be forgiven.  That's part of this petition.  We must recognize the debt we owe the Father. Our world tells us we can get by on tolerance, or a general, superficial, 'I'm sorry.'
But read the story of the Prodigal Son and His Forgiving Father (Luke 15:11-23).  You can't read it without seeing how deep the Father's forgiveness is--the running, embracing, celebrating Father.  Nor how deep the repentance of the son--the 'let me be a servant, I'll do whatever it takes' son.  This true repentance and true forgiveness is what we're called to pray for in the Lord's prayer.

But this is only half of the petition.  It's the second half that usually has us squirming in our seats.  It had me squirming the other night as I watched it lived out in front of me by those two grieving parents.  "As we forgive our debtors."  This part of the prayer commits us to act toward others as God acts toward us.  To BE Christ to others.  There has been, over the centuries, quite a debate about whether the proposition here should be 'as' or 'because' or even have the element of 'to the degree that...'.  Martin Luther, in fact, believed that if we don't forgive others, we're actually praying, "Father, don't forgive me!"  So the question is, is God's forgiveness contingent on our forgiving others?

No.  That's the short answer.  God sent Jesus to the cross to redeem us.  To FORGIVE us.  It makes me uncomfortable to say this, because I'd like to add condistions, but it's Biblical that it is simply and utterly about Jesus Christ and who He is that is the cause--the Incarnation!!!--of our forgiveness by God.

However, we are called to live a life worthy of the gospel--the good news of this forgiveness!!!  We are called to forgive.  If we are committed to living as Christ, we must live a forgiving life.  We cannot pray this prayer and not forgive.  It's that simple.  In other words, if you are praying this prayer, and holding something against someone in your life, you are lying.

The hour is short, perhaps.  There are people dying around us, and we will miss the chance to love them, if we're so busy holding things against each other.  How do you want to spend your days?  Being a picture of bitterness? Or of love?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Necessary

What's the one thing you absolutely have to have in your house (and toilet paper doesn't count--that goes without saying, or it better!!!)? For Beve and me, it's peanut butter.  A couple of weeks ago, when J was in Washington DC, E and I realized that we'd run out, and we panicked, until E remembered that J had a small jar of Jif in his bedroom.  With non compunction whatsoever, I went into his holy of holies and grabbed his jar.  I didn't even tell him (though I'm assuming he's figured it out).  Even though it was smooth, and Beve and I are crunchy people, it served the purpose until Beve answered our SOS and came home with a Costco two-pack.
Just a few minutes ago, Beve walked into the room with an overflowing spoonful. What could be better? But then, we put peanut-butter (or pindakaas, as the dutch call it) on lots of things: apples, pancakes, waffles, celery...and bread of every kind.

Peanut butter and bread, what could be better?  Bread is also one of my favorite things.  I'd eat a piece of good bread over icecream.  In a heartbeat.  We buy good bread, but what I like the best is Oatmeal Molasses, which Beve makes--almost often enough for us.  I'm not kidding, I love it. It's dense and chewy and  filliing.  Toasted, with peanut butter and homemade applebutter (I've made and consumed about half a dozen jars all by myself since September), it's my go-to food of choice.  Some might call it an addiction, but I really need bread.

The need for food--for bread--is fundamental.  If we're alive, we need nourishment.  Without it, we die.  It's that simple.  And, in the prayer given to His disciples, when Jesus finally gets around tothe petitions that are related to us rather than God, it's about the simple, unvarnished truth that we must eat to live.  This prayer makes us take seriously that we both need, and that it is HE who is in charge of giving us bread. It's such a basic thing Jesus bids us ask the Father.  Daily bread.  Food for the day, a fundamental staple of human existence.  Not exotic cake, not haute' cuisine. Only what we need.

This is true about all our prayers.  We must discover what it is we actually need, not (as I was saying the other day) what we think we want.  Our lists of wants are long.  And it's easy to get this point of the prayer too quickly. And then when we finaly get here, when we've glorified Him, surrendered to Him, asked Him how we can participate in the Kingdom, and we're quiet with Him, it isn't what we want that is important, it's what we actually need.  So the question I have, is what do you need?  What food, what spiritual food, what in this world do you actually need for this day that He's telling us to ask for?  Ordinary bread--like the wonderful, filling bread Beve makes-fills us up (in fact, one single slice is enough for me). It satisfies.  And that's what He is talking about.

Of course, He's also talking about the other Bread that satisfies as well.  "I Am the Bread of Life," He says in John 6:35.  Moses was given daily bread by God, bread that floated right out of the heavens to fill the Israelites' physical hunger.  Now Jesus turns that idea on its head.  He is actually that bread of life.  He inhabited the actual manna that fell from the sky in the wilderness; but is more significantly the living bread that will satisfy every hunger--physical, spiritual, emotional.  "I am the living bread, which people may eat and not die."  That bread of Life is necessary for us...in every way.  Jesus--our rich, perfect bread--is what we must have, or we die.

This convicts me, of course.  I get caught up in praying for what I want--for fancy cakes, fancy answers, fancy everything.  I need this reminder that He's simple and clear, and promises to be what I need.  For myself, for Beve, for our children, for our parents, our friends...for the world. Just give us bread, Lord, and give it today.  Then tomorrow, give it again. And we'll be thankful.