Monday, May 30, 2011

Small Blessings

As the Lord was passing by, a fierce wind tore mountains and shattered rocks ahead of the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire.And after the fire there was a quiet, whispering voice.     
I Kings 19: 11-12 (GOD'S WORD Translation) 

Sunday midday was hot and bright. I had two errands to run, one to a friend's house to pick up pepper and tomato plants for our garden (my seedlings having bombed gloriously), and one to the grocery to pick up a few items.

I stayed at my friend's house longer than I had intended, standing and talking in her backyard. She is going through a difficult time in her life, and I listened as she talked. We stood there for a long time, as friends do, sharing our thoughts, sharing our hearts. When I left, a flat full of plants in my trunk, we hugged. Arguably I "did her a favor" by listening as she threaded her way through the maze of her thoughts. But I was the one who felt blessed by the encounter: blessed by the friendship, blessed by her trust in me that allowed her to give voice to her thoughts.

My grocery stop was fast; I had a half dozen items for a family supper last night and a family cookout later today. After I had checked out and started towards the door, I saw coming toward me an employee I have seen several times. He is a developmentally disabled man of indeterminate age who works there as a bagger. He and I have talked on occasion: odd, disjointed talks given his limitations. Now he was walking slowly past the checkout lanes, swinging his head from side to side as he asked "Arnold? Arnold?"

"Arnold?" he asked, peering closely at me through his thick glasses. Then he looked at my tee shirt and read, slowly and carefully, "Celebration of Life." (The shirt is from the Cleveland Clinic Transplant Clinic.)

He extended his hand to me to shake, saying "Celebration. Every day of my life is a blessing. What did you do to get that shirt?"

I told him I had cancer, that I had had a lot of special medical treatment, and that I was celebrating because I still alive. His eyes widened when I said "medical treatment," and he nodded gravely before moving past me.

His words stuck with me as I loaded my groceries in the car. His simple statement, that every day of his life was a blessing, resonated with me. A few minutes later, I headed for home, my car full of plants, groceries, and blessings.

"The best things come in small packages" is an old saying that we don't hear too often in this era of "bigger is better." I think it must be the same way with blessings. Sometimes we get confused, thinking the bigger the blessing, the better the blessing. But God doesn't always do the Big Event. Oh, sure, there are the spectaculars: the burning bush, the parting of the seas, the walls of Jericho. But after the dust and the noise and the clamor settle, it is the quiet, whispering voice.

It is the smallest of voices. It is the smallest of packages.

Time and time again, it is the small blessings that register deeply. It is the hug of a friend, the handshake of a bagger, the family around around the table that leave their imprints upon my heart.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Steadfast Spirit

May is almost over and I have barely seen or experienced any of it. It took forever to get over the virus that hit earlier in the month. There have been house chores galore (the vast bulk of them handled wonderfully by Warren) as we get ready for company. There has been a lot of rain and my garden bed is ankle deep in lush grasses and weeds, while my puny seedlings sit on the sidelines, waiting to be planted.

It's not been a satisfying month for me. Too much of it has been spent coughing. And the rest has just been a plain, old nose to the grindstone kind of month. I told Warren we have not taken any time just to do something fun. I didn't mean go on vacation or have a Big Night Out. I just meant something simplea walk, an ice cream conethat wasn't tied to a chore or a job or an obligation or a meeting. He nodded. We then both turned back to our respective tasks to get more chores done.

I have spent more time than usual this month thinking about dying. No, this is not an announcement. My health is good. My cancer is stable. But I have of late been more contemplative about the reality of living with cancer, the impact it has hadfor better and for worseon my life, and the inevitable return of it somewhere in the future. Those thoughts tend to curve towards death much like a winding road whose end is over the hill still but not so distant as to fade into the far horizon. I shared some of these thoughts with Warren recently, adding that I thought death will be interesting. I am pretty sure that last comment caused Warren to take a deep breath before replying quietly "I know you have been thinking about it."

In the midst of muddling through May, I stumbled across a book, Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris, that has caught fierce hold of me. I am reading it slowly. (I tend to read swiftly, so the fact that I am taking this work slowly says something.) Norris writes about the concept of acedia, which can mean spiritual slothfulness, but which also signifies a greater spiritual malady of just not caring. In her book, she explores acedia in the context of her own spirituality, her work as a poet, her marriage, and the death of her husband.

For Norris, acedia is the inability to care about anything important, whether it is one's relationship with God, one's relationship with a spouse, or one's relationship to the community and society as a whole. Acedia is not depression (although they are related), but rather an intellectual and personal disconnect from caring and from being committed to anything. It is the response of "whatever."

Norris looks often to a line from Psalm 51: "Put a steadfast spirit within me." She has spent much time in Benedictine convents and monasteries and draws upon those spiritual communities. She often turns to early Christian writers, especially those from the fourth centuries, for solutions to being overextended and over stimulated to the point that she is numb.

Her reflections speak to me as I try to scale back on the external chatterthe visual and audio clutterthat filters into my life every day. It makes sense to me to continue to shut down my home computer early and often, although I still haven't weaned myself of it over both days of the weekend. (Question to self: why do I need to be on a computer on Saturday?) We don't go out to eat or run to the mall just for "something to do." We don't watch television. (Warren does listen to a lot of Cincinnati Reds baseball on the radio, which is a minor issue not because I am opposed to radio or baseball, but because I am not a Reds fan.) 

But it is still hard. I live in the world, not in a bubble, and recognizing and taking part in the world is a much a rebuke of acedia as prayer.

Norris also writes about turning down the internal static as well. Turning to her fourth century guides, she counsels: "Perform the humblest of tasks with full attention and no fussing over the whys and wherefores; remember that you are susceptible, at the beginning of any new venture, to being distracted from your purpose by such things as a headache, an intense ill will towards another, a neurotic and potent self-doubt." She reminds us that those early writers were living and struggling in the desert, trying to make it bloom. She goes on to discuss using the repetitive, plain rhythms of lifebaking, walking, pulling weeds, doing dishes every night with her husbandto ground herself in her beliefs.

I nod as I read her words. Potent self-doubt is always trying to plant itself in my mind. Combined with the headache, the nagging cough, it is too easy to sigh and say "whatever" when asked to care, when asked to contribute, when asked to pray. By focusing on those humblest of tasks, balking perhaps but doing the steps nonetheless, I am able to give todaythis moment, this lifeits due time and attention. By grounding myself in today, I can move further down the road towards that unseen but certain destination.

I spent a chunk of the winter exploring issues of faith at the behest of my friend Katrina. In the end, her firm nudge propelled me back into the ocean of belief again, having lingered for the longest time on the shore. With the thoughtful words of Kathleen Norris, I am able to lean back against the stern of my boat and gaze up at the Milky Way.

For most of human history, we have navigated the seas by the stars. Put a steadfast spirit within me, Lord, that my hand stays steady on the tiller as I sail along under the endless heavens.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Silence Explained

Katrina is concerned that my lack of blogging this month is an indication of how rough things are in my life, “rough” covering a wide range.

I say my lack of blogging is an indication of how badly my schedule has gotten out of hand. I often (too often) have a full plate.  As of late, we are not talking “full.” Instead, we are talking “spilled over onto the table and about to run on the floor.”

I just want a new plate. But there aren’t any left. Getting up from the table is not an option. And unlike everyone at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, I can’t move over one setting.

Finances are on my plate. So are family concerns that have been causing my youngest brother and me to huddle on the phone. So is a respiratory infection that has left me exhausted. (Good thing it was a little one or I’d really be in over my head.) The little itty bitty seedlings that are supposed to be our garden this summer are on the plate, although not as big a serving as they before last night, when our good friend Kermit brought over some of his “extras,” big strapping plants that put mine to shame. (Thank you, Kermit!)

I was recently looking at photos of a church mission trip. I envied the one of the mission team, looking so happy and hearty, all of them older than me by several years judging from the photos. There they all were, smiling broadly, going off to repair walls and plumb houses and build foundations.

I know; it’s a photo. It may have been hot and humid the whole time. Someone may have daily pounded their thumb instead of a nail. Someone else may have been muttering “I can’t stand this, why did I ever sign up for this?”  The whole trip may have been dogged by bad luck and bad humor. But I’m telling you: they looked good.

Looking at those pictures made me tired. (Truth is, I am tired even when I haven’t been sick, courtesy of the myeloma. Throw the respiratory thing in and I am wiped out.) If I were on a mission trip, I would probably have to find a shady spot and stretch out for a nap. The roof would not get fixed because I’d be working on it in twenty minute intervals with a rest in between.

I know this for a fact because Warren has been painting the hallway and I have been watching him, all the time feeling guilty because I am too tired to help. (Warren’s reply is “it’s nice if you just keep me company and talk to me while I am work,” which is Reason #9588573857 on a long list of why he is such a wonderful husband: he doesn’t mind doing the work alone when I am in a limp dish rag mode.)

We are headed into the weekend and the “to do” list is long. There are the usual suspects: laundry, shopping, cooking. There’s the hallway, there’s the garden. Company is coming midweek and there are two bedrooms to make ready, a not inconsequential task. Warren is on a stepladder in the hallway as I finish this.

The plate is spilling over.

I’ll wipe it up later. This post wore me out. I’m going to go take a nap.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Filled With Hope

As he has for the last three years, Warren again played timpani for the Easter services at Maple Grove Methodist Church. I have written about Maple Grove before, most recently when their minister, Bill Croy, retired.

There was an interim minister in the pulpit. The new minister will be installed in July. Bill Croy was there for Easter, now zipping around on an electric cart or using walking sticks when he left his cart. From across the room, I thought there were new shadows in his face that weren't there in the past, but his smile still throws light on all within its reach.

There was an opening prayer in the service that read in part as follows: May we remember in the darkest hours of our lives, He lived through the darkest hours of His life and then was alive again. That is Your gift to us, Eternal Life with Christ.

I found myself punctuating the sentence differently: May we remember in the darkest hours of our lives, He lived through the darkest hours of His life and then was alive again. That is Your gift to us.

Not to take away from the magnitude of eternal life, but to me the fact that Jesus lived "through the darkest hours of His life and then was alive again" is the resonating message.

There are so many of us living through our personal darkest hoursillness, death, tornadoes, job loss, floods, homelessness, hunger, deep family strife. We live through our darkest hours and emerge, sometimes battered, sometimes broken, but alive. Alive.

We have our own small resurrections on a sometimes weekly or daily basisnot aping Jesus, but following in his example.

For me, that is the wonder and the gift of belief. The gift is that we can and do stumble through our own darkest hours, not sure when the light will break or even if it will break, and then find we are alive again.

The interim pastor preached a sermon on the resurrection, concluding it with this thought: "If Christ is risen, then the empty tomb is filled with hope."

Indeed it is.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When You Live in Poverty: May 2011 Version

Growing up, I listened to my grandmother Skatzes talk about her Depression experiences as a wife and mother of a large family. She talked about how everyone was in the same boat and how they all worked together to make it through tough times. Folks did favors for one another: "I'll give you the shirt my boy outgrew if you give me the shoes that your little girl can't fit into anymore." The town doctors went on treating the sick and delivering babies, telling families to pay as they could. "I know you're good for it." Grandma never glorified the Great Depression as a time of universal goodwill nor did she minimize the deprivation. Her stories demonstrated though that most  went on with their daily lives, helping one another as best they could.

Those stories fascinated me. Several years ago, while having lunch with my friend Roger, we speculated about what historical era we would love to visit and experience firsthand. Roger picked the early years of the 1900s because of the new inventions: automobiles, airplanes, movies. He wanted to be in the midst of that exciting change. I picked the 1930s, the Great Depression, so I could witness those small episodes of daily life that Grandma had related.

A good moral to that casual lunch discussion is "be careful what you wish for." I don't have to go back in time to witness what my Grandma Skatzes lived through; I get to witness it in the here and now.

When you live in poverty, you bank heavily in relationships, because it is relationships that help you navigate the rocky shoals of your everyday life. As the Great Recession grinds on and more and more of us move downward on the economic scale, I see this played out daily.

Midway through April I was privileged to again attend a session of Grace Medical Clinic, again accompanying our Amy. This time I paid close attention to the workings of the waiting room while the Clinic volunteers performed their amazing ministry.

Amy got there early this time, to be higher on the waiting list. By the time I arrived from work, Amy had already met and talked with some of the other early arrivals. Cheryl, perhaps my age, had already taken Amy under her wing. As she scratched the poison ivy that had brought her to Grace, Cheryl talked to Amy about getting a practical nursing certificate through the local career center, about the portability of health care skills, and about how to get information about the programs and find out about financial aid. Amy listened intently.  A little later, when Cheryl learned that Amy's dad had a CDL, she proffered a contact for a possible trucking job. "Tell him to call Tom and make sure you tell him to mention my name," she said, writing down the phone number.

All around the room, others were also sharing job leads, tips on how to get by, information on other community resources. Amy only had $1.00 to get her to Friday's payday and groceries, so I gave her the loose dollars in my wallet. By the time we left Grace, her dad had called and offered to take her out to KFC. Amy would eat that evening.

Watching and listening to the exchange of support and advice hit me more than usual because earlier that same day I had shared tea and talk with a longtime friend who is struggling hard right now. This is someone who, along with her husband, had attained recognizable benchmarks of successcollege educations, home ownership, secure jobsand then watched everything get swept away by illness, job loss, long term unemployment, and foreclosure. A year ago, they moved back here, her hometown, to be closer to an aging parent and try to make a stand against the economic devastation that had roared through their lives. She has a fulltime minimum wage job, her husband has a part-time minimum wage job. These are the only jobs they have been able to find in over two years. She has been off work for several weeks due to injury, so their financial resources, already tight, have been stretched past breaking. As we talked, my friend revealed that they had applied for food stamps, and that they had no way to pay their rent in May.  She said, ruefully, "I never wanted to come back here with my tail tucked between my legs." We talked about and shared what social workers call "linkages." I gave her names to call, agencies and programs to check out, even a job lead. I shared with her some of our own struggles in recent months. The reality is, I told her, but for the fact that our home is mortgage free, we would have been at risk for homelessness this winter due to no fault of our own. Fortunately, because we don't have rent or a mortgage to pay, we not only kept our housing but also kept the lights on and put food on the table as well. No monthly housing expense is a blessing my friend and millions of others like her do not have.

When she left, we hugged long and hard.

This is what poverty in 2011 is about. It is about the high school friend in her 50s who lies awake at night wondering how long she and her husband will have a roof over their heads. It is about Amy eating only one or two meals a day because that's all she can afford some weeks. It is about the 15 patients at Grace that night, young and old, at least one of them very ill, waiting patiently because this was the only way they could get medical attention. It is about doing what you can, penny by penny, to try to meet your most basic needs.

And it's about relationships.

One of the many benefits of my new job is that I have office colleagues I see and interact with daily. We all have different backgrounds, different politics, different areas of expertise, different life stories. But the one thing we seem to have in common is a recognition of the vast reach of the Great Recession and how deeply it has hurt our community. None of us feels it is over yet. The poor are not nameless to us, because they are now not only our clients, but also our neighbors, our friends, our family, and,  sometimes, even ourselves.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What April Held

"Now you know why we celebrate May Day!"

"Too bad National Poetry month isn't in February."

"Another one."

Those were all comments Warren made to me, albeit with a lot of love and affection, last Sunday when we talked about my month-long Poetry Challenge. We were both laughing hard as he tried to top each quip with an even funnier one.

Let's be honest: by Warren's own admission, he usually doesn't "get" poetry. Despite his living his whole adult life in a world of rhythm, he and poetry do not connect. Most days Warren would read my post and look at me blankly, searching for something - anything - he could say. (That stupefaction is the source of Warren's third quote above, explaining what he thought each day as he clicked on my blog.) The one poem I was sure he would like, Reading Lessons, he gave lackluster praise, telling me the last word in the poem ("gone"), was incorrect. "Absorbed is more accurate," said my residential rail buff. It probably is to all the train folks out there, but to me the correct term was "gone," as in "never coming back." A poem I thought he would pass by without comment, Easter, he liked. "It tells a story," he said.

Go figure.

The good news is that I knew going into the challenge that Warren did not particularly enjoy poetry. So I never took his lack of enthusiasm personally, and gave up early on trying to explain any of the poems. By midweek of the final week, I gave up even asking what he thought of each one, as his silence told me volumes.

In fairness to Warren, I had mixed feelings myself about the challenge. Poetry is not my strong suit and I was constantly uneasy at "putting it out there" for that reason, let alone my other personal ones. The challenge for me was posting my work and letting it stand. A wonderful (and much welcome) ending note to the month came last night when my friend (and regular reader) Ashley told me that she had enjoyed my April poetry challenge. Thank you, Ashley!

All the same, here it is May 1 and to Warren's vast relief, I am getting back to small moments and great rewards, starting with today's post.

As of tomorrow, I will be starting my eighth week of my new job as a part-time staff mediator at our county Juvenile Court. I love my job. It fits me wonderfully. I am still getting used to the schedule, which I primarily "control" but which fluctuates a lot from week to week. The fluctuation will continue until the end of the school year, when truancy mediations halt. Being on a schedule of 24 hours a week, even one with a lot of stretch to it, has taught me quickly to be more conscientious of my time and my "to do" lists, household, professional, or otherwise.

It would appear that spring has finally arrived, although for much of April it arrived in its typical Ohio fashion: 2 steps forward, 1 sideways, 4 backwards, then another forward. Repeat. April was cold and wet, cold but not wet, wet but not cold, and rarely sunny. For lots of reasons, none of them good, I didn't get seeds started until April 17. By my records, that is late for me. As of today, the tomatoes have sprouted. The peppers are just starting to pop through the dirt. Given how cold it has been, it will be late May or even June before I will be able to plant them outside, so I am crossing my fingers that it will all work out and that we will have tomatoes before the first frost. (On the other hand, I may cheat and buy commercial plants. We'll see.)

We both turned a year older earlier in April. Normally, that sentence would carry a lot more joy and enthusiasm, but other events intervened.

I had an oncology visit in mid-April, the first I had seen Tim since last fall. The good news? I now have insurance through my new job. The bad news? I won't have any insurance coverage for my cancer (as a pre-existing condition) until March 6, 2012, thanks to living in a country that values large corporate interests over small human ones. The great news? My cancer is still slumbering. (Huge exhale as I let out the breath I had been holding.) I don't see Tim until next October, and by then it's only four and a half more months until my treatment is covered. So long as my bone marrow behaves itself for ten months and six days more, I will be fine.

The Symphony dominated the whole month, after pretty much chewing up all of March. It rolled over my birthday; it consumed Warren's entirely (he was at a board meeting until 10:00 p.m. the night of his birthday). The March concerts (which were stunning) and the April concert (which was last night and was tumultuous) being only five weeks apart this year would have been enough activity. It wasn't. Challenges on the Symphony front and the resulting extreme stress and additional work those struggles placed on Warren bled into our home. Bled into our home? Steamrolled through the front door and out the back. We as a we are okay, but our peace of mind, our personal time, and our home life were just about destroyed by mid-month. More positive events (thank you, Dick) have occurred as of late, but our household is still licking its wounds. I finally realized, as the homefront tension flared up again last Friday morning, that all I can do is try to be a better listener as Warren and the Board move forward. I support Warren and his work one thousand percent. I believe deeply in the Symphony. Great things (should) lie ahead. But I cannot pretend that the last two months have not been painful. Even as I read back over this paragraph, I sigh. I am drained.

It is those moments - those bleak or painful ones - when I try to let go of the inner turmoil and focus on something small and immediate. The small is important to me. Often when I am deepest in a hurtful situation, seething with resentment or anger or pettiness, it is the littlest things, the smallest moments, that allow to drop my indignation or misery and catch my breath.

Like this moment: I came out of a truancy mediation at one of our elementary schools two weeks ago and looked around. The school is nestled into one of our older neighborhoods. Like everywhere else, we are hit hard here by the recession. It was a rainy day and the houses were looking particularly bedraggled and down at the heels, as houses often do in the rain. But I felt my heart uplifted all the same. It is Home, it is where I Belong doing Work I Believe In. All I could say was "thank you, thank you, thank you" for the chance to serve my community quietly, in little ways.

Or this moment: Walking to Friday's rehearsal, trying to sort out my feelings, I passed a swath of violets in a lawn, their blooms making a deep purple pool in the grass.

Or this one: Jaime conducting the Beethoven at a rehearsal, his heart soaring to the music.

Or this one: Before Friday night's dress rehearsal, while I was still nursing many grievances, I looked across the lobby of the hall to see Warren sitting quietly on the steps, his head down, studying music. He looked unhappy; he looked absolutely alone. I knew he was confused and hurt by my mood. I got up, walked over, sat down behind him, and leaned up against him, wrapping my arms around him and just cherishing the warmth of my husband. "I love you. I'm sorry," I whispered. He leaned back into my embrace. "I love you too."

And so I begin May on quiet moments: the rainy day row of houses that inexplicably lifted my spirits, a puddle of violets, the rapture of music, the warmth of my marriage. My gratitude for my life.

Happy May Day.