Monday, July 25, 2011

Forgiveness

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
                                                                                                      Matthew 6:12 

Sometimes you hear a thread of a family story that is so contrary to your version of the story that it makes you reexamine and ponder what you know and what you do not know to be true.

That is what happened to me last Friday. My thoughts and heart have been knotted ever since as I sort through the tangled, loose, or just plain snarled threads of a family story that has had far-reaching consequences even to this day.

A long time ago, decades ago when I was a small child, my grandfather committed a great wrong against me, not just once, but numerous times over several years.

When he died in the spring of my fourth grade year, I was relieved. No more hiding, no more dodging, no more trying to be invisible.

My grandfather's death had an immediately freeing effect on me, but what I did not know in my ten year old naivety was that the emotional consequences of what had happened would imprint me forever. In part, it made me who and what I am today. Some of that has been to my benefit: what happened infused me with determination and resilience to survive what otherwise would have destroyed me. Some of that was to my detriment and it took a long time with a wonderful  therapist to help reshape core coping mechanisms that had served the child well, but were disastrous for the adult.

But this post is not about what happened. This post is about the new line of the story that I heard for the first time last Friday and am weaving into the story I already know.

On Friday, I accompanied my aunt Ginger to the hospital while she underwent a medical procedure. While we waited in the prep area, she on the bed, I on the hard chair, we talked to pass the time and Ginger started sharing family stories.

I learned things about Grandma Skatzes (her mother) that I had not heard before: how she went to work in the kitchens of the women's dorm in this small town when my grandfather was ill and unable to work, how much she loved that job and how she hated to give it up when he was better and insisted she quit. I heard how during the Depression she was the one who went to the Relief Office to get food for the family, as my grandfather was too proud to ask for help despite the hunger at home.

And then Ginger told me a story I had not heard before, about my grandfather's final days. My grandfather had a heart attack and was hospitalized. Within a week or two, he would have a massive one that would kill him. That part of the story I knew. But what I didn't know is that for several days prior to his death, at my grandfather's request, a minister came daily to the hospital and met with him for lengthy talks.

Ginger, who knows my story, stopped in her narrative and said, "I wonder if he was feeling…guilty over…you know…and wanted to…well, maybe atone for what he did…well…you know…."

We changed the topic and the day went on. But I carried that new piece of information home with me and have turned it over innumerable times since then.

My grandfather met with a minister several times in the days leading up to his death.

I struggle with the notion of my grandfather seeking forgiveness in his dying days, if that is what he indeed did. I struggle with the image of my grandfather, facing death, finding solace with a minister.

I struggle big time with all this. Never mind that faith is meant to be a strength and comfort to people. Never mind that it is not my right to dictate how, when, or even whether a person repents of his wrongs. I struggle with the notion of my grandfather having that comfort at all. 

It is hard to forgive.

One of the many, many reasons I veered away from church as a young adult was my childhood church's interpretation of the duty and obligation of Christians to "forgive those who trespass against us." That message was hardened into a kind of co-dependency diatribe by our elderly minister and at least one Sunday School teacher whose class I attended for one or two miserable years. If we were incapable of forgiving someone who had wronged us, then we were at fault, we were to blame, and we were the ones in dire need of forgiveness. Never mind what the wrong was. The burden was all on me, the victim, to rise magnanimously above the wrong and forgive the wrongdoer. Anything less than that and I was probably heading to hell in a personalized hand basket.  

There was no discussion of the human and humane side of forgiveness: that forgiving lifts a burden from the victim's heart, that forgiveness allows the one who has been wronged to move on and put the wrong aside. If someone, anyone, had suggested that side to forgiveness, instead of threatening me with damnation if I could not grant absolute and total forgiveness, I might have listened.

But, as taught, this was a version of forgiveness that I could not swallow. It was not one I could find in the Bible. It was certainly not one I could live with as a tenet of faith. It left me outside in the cold, victimized in spirit, knowing in my heart there was no place for me inside that church. It is no coincidence that the religion that drew me in was Judaism, which places the emphasis on atonement by the person who has done the wrong, including, where possible, to the victim.

It is no wonder that I have been journeying spiritually for so long.

It was my wonderful therapist who finally explained forgiveness to me in a way I could understand and accept. He asked me how I felt about forgiveness, which caused me to nearly leap out of my seat. I explained the whole painful religious experience that left me feeling more victimized than before. He was quiet while I calmed down, and then he suggested equating forgiveness with forgiving a past due bill in a business. You stop sending the bill. You write it off. It doesn't undo what happened, it doesn't explain or excuse the act, but it allows you to put it away.

You just let it go.

I could accept that. I could mentally run the bill and stick it away in a folder marked "closed accounts." And that is what I did, until Ginger's story last Friday. 

Now the bill is in my hand again.

In writing this post, I read various translations of the Lord's Prayer, particularly the verse having to do with forgiving "those who trespass against us." I did not find any version of the prayer, including the King James version, that used the "trespass" language. I did find multiple versions that spoke of forgiving debts and forgiving debtors, in line with what my therapist discussed.

I can approach forgiveness on those terms. It's a debt. Not all debts are honored. Not all debts are paid.

Not all debts are collectible.

Did my grandfather seek forgiveness in his final days? I don't know. I'll never know. Am I better able to forgive his wrongs, knowing he might have been remorseful, that he might have repented? I don't know. I do know this: what happened is a long, overdue bill and there is no need for me to continue to send it. It will never be paid, but I can let it go.

The account is closed.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

One Dime, One Day

I have been struggling with money issues as of late: some of them in my wallet, more of them in my head. Monday, I contacted our local hospital where I do all my oncology work (lab work and consultations) to find out why I was no longer receiving hospital bills. Our local hospital is part of a larger conglomerate and it turns out that somehow, somewhere, between April 2010 and October 2010, the system's computer resurrected my old mailing address (last used in October 2008) and was shipping everything to that address. That explains the recently received collection letter on a bill from October that I never received and never saw, and that explains why I only just learned the April totals.

The April total was higher than I anticipated. Had I known, I would have been paying on it but I didn't and I haven't been, so now I have a whopping bill to pare down. (Before you say "but April, surely you knew you had a bill, why weren't you more proactive?," let me add that I also have a pending application for financial assistance and I initially thought the bill was being held up while the assistance application was being reviewed.)

So by 5:00 Monday night, I was thoroughly demoralized. But then I rallied: I will pay it off bit by bit; yes, that means stretching some other things out a little further, but I can do it; it will be okay.

That was before I looked more closely at the account sheets and saw something on the master account called "bad debt balance," with a large sum after it. A large sum as in four figures. Where did that come from? When I applied for financial assistance last time, the counselor referred to some unpaid (and unmentioned ever) 2004 charges that should have been picked up by Medicaid or bundled into my bankruptcy in 2005. Could that be them? What charges are they? And why that amount?

I don't know about the figure; it apparently is written off but still pops up in internal documents (which is what I was looking at as we tried to figure out where my bills had gone). Regardless, it is so discouraging. As I told Warren when I related the day's discoveries, I pay and pay and pay, get close to finishing off a major bill of some sort and plan on adding that payment to another bill's payment (the snowball effect), and then learn I have new bills. Or older bills newly discovered. By the time I pay my share of the household costs and make payments on the bills (now including the new ones), there is little left to my paycheck. 

It's hard. It's hard to be perpetually tight on funds. It's hard to realize that some necessities I have delayed spending money on are just that much more out of reach, even with being hyper frugal with my dollars. It's hard to not feel that even a small item once in a great while is an extravagance I should not indulge in.

But like so many times when I am feeling stressed or struggling to cope, all I really needed after Monday was a different perspective.

A change in attitude.

A reminder of just how much I am blessed.

What a difference a day can make.

The first reminder, small and sweet, happened when I dropped Warren off at work yesterday. After he got out of the car, he bent over and reached down to the curb. Had he dropped something?

Warren straightened back up and held up a slim dime. One thin, silvery dime. "It can go in the vacation fund!"

We both laughed. We are ten cents (ten cents!) closer to whatever we are doing next summer. And the dime knocked my perspective a little closer to center. It doesn't have to be all about the money. It so rarely is all about the money. So many times it is about other things: emotions, anxieties, stresses. But it is so much easier and convenient to blame it on money rather than deal with those messy, squishy topics. 

The second reminder was neither short nor sweet. Last night at 10:20 the phone rang. In our household, phones ringing after 10:00 are usually not pleasant calls. This one held true to type.

Our "almost daughter" Amy was on the phone. She is at risk to lose her already insecure housing situation (she lives with her dad) due to family conflicts, she is at risk to lose her already insecure means of transportation due to family conflicts, she is underemployed and has not found additional work that would give her the financial ability to meet the risks, she is going hungry more times than she will admit, and she is so emotionally battered and worn down due to family conflicts that she is almost too numb to respond to the immediate crises. I tried making suggestions, until I finally realized I needed to shut up and listen because she was in no shape to hear the offers of help. Amy talked and cried, cried and talked.

Then she blurted out, crying even harder, "and we only have a half roll of toilet paper left and I don't get paid until Friday."

That I could respond to concretely and immediately. "Amy, come over here right now. We have toilet paper."

I went upstairs and gathered some rolls of toilet paper. I also raided the vacation fund box, which held a few dollar bills (along with Tuesday's dime and some other loose change), and Warren contributed a few more. The toilet paper went into a grocery bag, the dollar bills went into an envelope.

When Amy pulled up five minutes later, I met her on the lawn. I handed her the grocery bag and the envelope.

"This is a gift from us. It'll help you get closer to payday. And here's the toilet paper."

We hugged for a long moment. Amy is thin and shaking and sad. It breaks my heart to see her that way. She is so young to have so many sorrows and difficulties. I walked her back to the car, thanked her friend who brought her over, hugged her again.

"We love you. We are here for you. You can stay here while you figure things out."

After Amy left, I walked back into the house and plopped down beside Warren on the couch, drained. We talked a little about what had just happened, about what we can do for Amy. It was still on my mind as I fell asleep. This morning, Warren said "I think Amy was in my dreams last night."

Yeah, mine too.

Amy was the big jolt to my perspective, a real live reminder of just how much I have. I have what she is lacking presently, starting with toilet paper, food, and a secure place to live. Most important, I have a loving home to shelter me when times are tough.

I have a different attitude today. I still have a large pile of medical bills that I will need to pay down bit by bit. I still have some important purchases that I will need to defer yet a little longer. I still have an anemic checking account balance which will rally only briefly on payday for some time to come. We even have a little tiny vacation fund that might just maybe allow us to get away for a few days next summer.

And I still have a wonderfully loving household where Warren and I work together to make the most of what we have, dime by dime, day by day.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Jonah in Me

One day long ago, God's Word came to Jonah, Amittai's son: "Up on your feet and on your way to the big city of Nineveh! Preach to them. They're in a bad way and I can't ignore it any longer." But Jonah got up and went the other direction to Tarshish, running away from God. He went down to the port of Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish.  
Jonah 1:1-3 (The Message)

Back in the beginning of the year, my friend Katrina sent me on a spiritual journey. At the time, I admitted that her expectations brought out the Jonah in me. Called to Nineveh, I wanted to go instead to Tarshish.

I'm in a Jonah kind of mood right now. (Or a Moses mood, who after offering up excuse after excuse to God as to why he, Moses, should not ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, finally blurted "Send somebody else!")

Ever since Katrina sent me off on my journey, I have come to view my beliefs and my spirituality in far more personal, real ways. So why am I kicking my heels right now? 

Blame it on Michelle Derusha.

Michelle is the blogger at Graceful, a deftly and beautifully written blog about her life, her faith, and her own journeys. One of the journeys Michelle is on presently is a "shop-not" year.

Shop-not years always intrigue me and I read Michelle's explanation of why she had made that decision. She pointed to a book, The Hole In Our Gospel, by Richard Stearns. What Michelle wrote about that book was intriguing, intriguing enough to track down the book and start reading it last night.

Start reading it? Start absorbing it. Start inhaling it. Start immersing myself in it. It is a powerful book. It is a book that reaches right into my heart and pulls hard.

This is how hard that book has hit me: When I find a quote that moves me, I usually flag it until I can come back to it and copy it into my commonplace book. I am not yet finished with The Hole in Our Gospel and there are so many notes sticking out of it that it looks as if someone shoved a ream of construction paper into the pages.

The Hole in Our Gospel is a book that even when I manage to put it down and turn to the tasks at hand, I am still thinking about the book.

And this is where Jonah comes in. Sundays are my swimming day many weeks, this week being one of them. As I swam earlier today, counting laps, I found myself thinking of the book, and the book's message, and what that message could, might, maybe mean for me. I found myself praying as I counted laps: 3-4, 3-5, What are You asking of me, Lord?, 3-6, 4-1, What am I supposed to do?, 4-2, 4-3, Not now, please, Lord, not now.

As I type these words, it is midafternoon Sunday. Sam and a friend are in the next room, gaming. Warren is in his shop (the garage) cutting steel. Me? I'm wondering whether to go to Nineveh or Tarshish, and I haven't even finished the book yet.

In the end, Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches repentance (so successfully that God spared the city, to Jonah's great anger and disgust). As for me, I suspect in the end I will trudge into my own version of Nineveh, where I will find…

Myself, talking about but not taking action, wondering about but not questing after a more meaningful expression of my faith. My Nineveh is not populated by evildoers so wicked the town is about to be destroyed, but just by me, who I hope is a fairly decent person. But as Stearns make clear in his book, the issue is not whether one is fairly decent or well meaning or a "good Christian." The issue is far greater than that: it is about living with integrity and compassion and justice for the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the sick, the hungriest of the hungry. It is about the meaning of life itself.

Sooner or later, I hope to end up in Nineveh.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Magical Music Moments

I have been silent on my blog for several days. The start of July is always a swirl of setting stages and packing up percussion gear and attending holiday concerts. There is not much time to think, let alone collect my thoughts. Add to that the work schedule, some ongoing family matters with older family members, Sam being home (and in and out of the house), and Life in general, and it is no wonder that my pen (or keyboard) has been silent.

But in the last few days, I have experienced three magical music moments, reminding me of the power of music and family and community.

The first was a few nights ago, when Warren and I came home from our respective days at the office to find Sam and friends ensconced on the deck playing Magic and talking. Three of the four are musical, and there were guitars and one ukulele at hand. After the game concluded and the evening started coming on, the boys (the young men) reached for the instruments and started jamming. Old, new, folk, funk, improv: the notes spilled into the evening along with laughter and comments. One would start a line, look at another, and say "C sharp." A nod and other fingers would start to build on the melody.

I joined them all on the deck at some point in the evening. (Warren was at his board meeting.) The jamming went on, sometimes with singing, sometimes just the sweet sounds. Sam grinned at me and kept playing. At one point, when the other two took a break, he started playing an old Grateful Dead standard and we sang along in duet. He told me afterwards that he "really really liked that you are just hanging out with us--that is so cool." As far as I am concerned, that was worth the whole visit right there. 


After I shared the experience with my friend Margo, she commented "Last night on the deck sounds like one of those magical summer nights. Lucky you." Margo was right. Lucky me. It was magical and moments such as those have been all too rare with my mercurial son. I was grateful for every note that spilled into the air Monday night. 


The second magical moment was Warren and I just went to Columbus to the Ohio Theatre to see two Buster Keaton silent films. I have commented before about watching silent films at the Ohio Theatre and last night again featured the amazing Clark Wilson on the Mighty Morton. Buster Keaton is a longtime favorite of mine, so I would have enjoyed the night no matter what. But Clark Wilson is truly stunning, and after playing the entire film (plus a Keaton short before the feature length one), the audience rose to its feet for a long, sustained, and deserved standing ovation. Warren and I drove home the "slow route," which means meandering north on High Street through the various Columbus neighborhoods, listening to the chatter and music spill out of the restaurants into the warm night. We were both quiet on the way back; I was stilled wrapped in the music of the evening. 


The third, which happened just today and is still coming together as I type, reminded me (as if I needed it) that we are blessed to live in a town where the sense of community is powerful and that I am double blessed to witness it firsthand. And triply blessed to be married to Warren, who also has a strong sense of community both personally and as executive director of the Symphony.


My morning started with a Facebook message from my friend, Jessica, who put out a plea for help. A good friend of hers - a father, a grandfather, a husband - is dying of cancer. He is back home, spending his last days with his family and friends, living in the front room of the house where there is a large window to the world. Today is his wedding anniversary, the last he will celebrate with his wife.  Other friends are bringing over an anniversary meal. Was there any chance that somehow Warren could pull together an ensemble to appear tonight and serenade the couple?


I shared the note with Warren before we even sat down for breakfast. By the time he left for his office, his thoughts were already running to possibilities. In less than an hour, he had one of the musicians, the amazing Pam Beery, say "I will try to do this." Pam is a gifted flutist who plays in a local duo,  and she was already on the phone to her partner to make it happen. 


When Warren told Jessica what was coming together, and heard her thanks, he said (and I only imagine the quiet, comforting tone he used) that the mission of the Symphony is to engage the community through music. That often means thinking outside the box and reaching people where they are, not sitting back and expecting them to come to you. Jessica put on Facebook minutes later that she has "has a new and greater appreciation for musicians today!" 


Music is magic. It brings people together, it closes gaps, it strengthens and celebrates and comforts.  Somewhere in Delaware tonight a man and his wife are sharing their last anniversary together, and there will be music spilling into the evening, blessing them as they listen.


Postscript


I had most of the story right. What I did not realize is that last night was not the couple's "real" anniversary, but a special anniversary planned (by friends) when during a recent medical crisis, the wife cried "I just want one more anniversary with him." 


The incomparable Pam Beery, along with her equally talented music partner, Bob Claymier, made the special anniversary all the more special with their playing. Our friend Brandon (Jessica's husband) caught a little of their performance on tape.











Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole


Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

How old was I when I first read that line? Nine? Ten? Ten sticks in my mind as the right age. 

I had discovered the small paperback on the bookshelf at my Aunt Jane's house. Aunt Jane, Uncle Frank, and their children lived in the house in the next yard over from the house next door when I was growing up. In the summer, it was as natural to be at Aunt Jane's, running after my older brother and cousins, as it was to be in our own backyard.

On hot days, we might retreat inside. My brother Dale would thunder upstairs with John and Robert to play with Matchbox cars on the bedroom floor. I was perfectly content lounging downstairs, reading stray comic books or the latest issue of Mad Magazine, and no doubt annoying my aunt Jane to no end with my presence. At times she would put me to work on simple chores; other times she would shoo me home when my stay went on too long.

Whenever I was in Aunt Jane's kitchen, I would scan the built-in bookshelf for things to read. 45 years later, I don't remember much about that shelf other than it had very few books of interest to a child, even one who read voraciously.

But the little dark blue paperback caught my eye. It was a small book, a child size book. I was younger when I first saw it. Although I was discouraged by the dense text, I liked to look at the detailed drawings every few pages: a rabbit in a waistcoat, a girl holding back a curtain to reveal a tiny door, the same girl pages later with an elongated neck.

The pictures fascinated me. Whenever I was at Aunt Jane's house and it got quiet and slow, I would pull down the little book and study the pictures over and over. Here were two identical, roly-poly little men; here were chess pieces with faces, clearly having a conversation.

What was this book?

The summer I was ten, I found out what the mysterious dark blue paperback was when I opened it and began to read it rather than just look at the pictures. Thus was I finally introduced to Alice.

I was hooked by the third sentence. Curiouser and curiouser, I plunged in headfirst and kept reading. The little blue paperback, which turned out to be an omnibus edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, came home with me, where it joined the pantheon of truly great books (meaning I read and reread them constantly) occupied at that time only by Little Women and the works of Marguerite Henry.

It has never left my "all time favorites" list.

I have lost count of how many times I have read the Alice books. When I was young, it was not unusual for me to finish and then begin them again immediately, much like the Torah reading cycle in synagogues. The little blue paperback came home with me, eventually traveling with me to college and beyond, crisscrossing the country as one of my most important books.

In fact, the little book survived for many, many years until my son Ben came along and read it to death. Already well worn and cracked at the spine, the book had no chance against his reading style, which seems to have consisted of massaging every last word off the page and into his very being. Ben was every bit as taken with Alice as I was and I later bought him a hardback copy because, as I wrote in the inscription, "everyone needs to know their way through Wonderland."

Everyone should know their way through Wonderland, but not everyone does. My dear Warren has never read the Alice books. Neither have his two children. I am not sure whether my brothers have read them. Sam has only read Through the Looking Glass.

I can't imagine life without Wonderland. 

In recent months, I have read two novels based on the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Lutwidge  Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and just finished two newer biographies about the unusual author of these fantastical works. The story of Lewis Carroll, fictionalized or not, is a tangled, confused tale.

I was trying to explain some of this to Warren the other night after he asked me about my reading. Lewis Carroll's life, as a real, historical happening, is murky. In the century plus since Carroll died, and the century and a half since Alice in Wonderland was first published, biographical portraits of him have run the gamut from gentle, quirky professor who loved children to emotionally disturbed misfit. After finishing Jenny Woolf's well-crafted biography, The Mystery of Lewis Carroll, I suspect the truth contained threads of the entire continuum.

As Woolf adeptly points out, the original sources and record as to Carroll are slim at best. As an Oxford lecturer and deacon, Carroll led a circumscribed life in many ways. His family destroyed many of his personal records after his death. Other records have disappeared from view. Woolf, in fact, discovered Carroll's bank account record in 2005, untouched since 1900 when his estate was concluded, and was able to draw upon them in her research and writing. Modern Carroll biographers start from the thinnest of original sources, and that hampers us from our 21st century post in knowing the man behind the books.

Having read more about Lewis Carroll, I am torn whether to pursue him any further or just let him go.  I am not sure in my mind whether I want to learn more about the author and his tangled life. The truth is we shall never know Lewis Carroll, we shall never know Charles Lutwidge Dodsgon. The trail was obscure from the outset, and huge portions of it have been obliterated. With each passing year, Carroll grows fainter and fainter like a fading photograph, smaller and smaller like Alice eating the mushroom.

In the end, I am not sure it matters whether I know Lewis Carroll. It is Wonderland that beckons to me still. Regardless of how I arrive there, down a rabbit hole or through a looking glass, I shall always return to Wonderland.