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Last week, I read a blog post about a radio program. The pastor who led this program firmly stated that if you are stressed your faith is weak. You don’t trust God. If you had faith in God, you would feel no stress whatsoever. The blogger bought into this hook, line, and sinker.
My initial response was somewhat impolite, assuming that you’re a pirate or a gangster. If you’re a regular person, my response was pretty darn rude.
You see, my father fell and hit his head this week. It took 15 staples to close the wound, he was in the hospital for several days and he will probably never live in his own home again. Then he got to move to a skilled nursing facility. And they’ve already moved him from one room to another. All in four days.
I have stress, but I also have faith. God watched over Dad this whole time. The fall could easily have killed him. He couldn’t get up but he fell within sight of the front door. The mail carrier saw him. If he had fallen somewhere else, some when else, he would have been in real trouble. And he has finally admitted that he can’t safely live at home. Blessings all, and I know who to credit with these blessings. God.
But I’m still stressed. I’m a hardcore introvert who has been at the hospital a lot. The hospital social worker seems to think that telling me I need to get x y and z information so she can get Dad transferred will make me feel empowered even if she proceeds without it. And then there are the phone calls at odd hours from family members, extroverts all, who simply must speak to me although they already know as much as I can tell them.
I have stress. I am stressed. But I also have God and I know he’s given me what I need to handle this particular batch of stress. The social worker, God bless her, is now dealing with my social worker sister. The extroverts? My husband and son are running interference.
I’ve managed to spend a bit of time this morning reading (for pleasure!), knitting, and praying. Of course, I’m praying. It helps me feel connected to God, and, when I can take a few moments to breathe and simply be, I feel His Peace seeping in.
I have stress. I feel stressed. But I’m not going to let someone guilt trip me about it, because I also have faith that God is by my side.
It is hard to believe. It has been one year since my father died, a whole year he hasn’t been a part of. He was not there to worry about me when I had pneumonia, as he was the first time it happened, when I was 17. He brought chocolates and books to the hospital, put a warm washcloth on my arm when I complained about the coldness of the IV. He is not here now to joke that my new singing voice (I lost my upper register, it appears, permanently) sounds suspiciously like Ethel Merman’s, who he pretended to love but really loathed, setting up a premise the whole family continues to trade on. (Just ask my brother what his “favorite” movies are and be prepared to cringe.)
I often dream about the dead. These dreams are comforting and cathartic; a colleague who works in hospice thinks I have a gift. Just the other night I dreamed about my friend Tim, who lost his fight with cancer last year, aboard a sailing ship, a spyglass to his eye. He sighted me and waved, yelling out cheerfully, “I’ve got your cat!” (Our Lula Mae, who recently passed, would make a fine ship’s cat; she was clever, agile and always up for adventure.) But I’ve never dreamed about my dad, never got a feeling or message or reassuring “nudge” from the great beyond.
Perhaps we never get over the loss of a parent. My friend Kathleen lost her father during the Vietnam War. She still struggles with it. How much simpler it would be if our loved ones really could communicate with us from heaven! When greedy old Mr. Dives begs God to send a warning to his living relatives so that they will not end up in hell as he has (in the New Testament story of Lazarus the beggar), I feel a trickle of sympathy for him. The living need to know what the dead know. I think, in most cases, it would bring us great joy.
Ah, but that’s where faith comes in, right? Bridging the gap between comfort and discomfort, mourning and solace. Faith may come on instantaneously, but it is slow in its work. Perhaps this is for the best. Like a super-strong glue that does not set quickly, but can be repositioned, faith allows us wiggle room in our healing. It keeps up with us as we pass through the stages of grief, setting up only when we have reached acceptance.
I am not there quite yet. I have accepted my father’s loss, but I am not comfortable with it. Maybe I never will be. But to all of us who are mourning, I say, keep at it. We learn about those we love not just in their presence, but also in their absence.
1 You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
Psalm 139 1-4, 13-14 NIV
We needed to replace our kitchen sink, so I called a plumber. He was professional and seemed to know what he was doing, but there was one thing I noticed that put me off. No matter how many times I spoke with him, he never addressed me by name. He didn’t say, “Ms. Williams,” or even “Ruth” or any name at all. His emails would start with, “Hi,” and in person, he would just nod and say “Hello.” I think the least any professional person can do is to address you by your name.
“Notes from the Universe,” is a daily affirmation written by motivational speaker, Mike Dooley, and it’s the first email I open each morning. Normally, the email addresses you by your first name to personalize the message, but this is the one I received today:
“Your chosen perspective, , changes everything.”
Those two commas represent the space where my name would normally be. Guess there was a glitch in their email system.
So now, when I get this email that is meant to lift my spirits, I think, oh yeah, this really is just a mass-router, sent to thousands. It’s not personal. It wasn’t tailor-made for me.
That’s why I’m so grateful that God knows me by name. It’s the reason I count my blessings by name every day. It’s important to remember who we are and whose we are. It doesn’t matter what the world calls you, or if people seem to forget you. We were named and claimed before we even came to be. God knows every blade of grass, every drop of rain on every petal. Rest assured, He knows you by name as well. We’re blessed and beloved, cherished and treasured. Now that’s a personalized message we can count on.
When our women’s circle met last week, I wasn’t quite prepared for the tiny tantrum thrown by one of our members about that night’s lesson. “You’re going to hear from me. She started with that pray and it isn’t even to Jesus or God. It makes me throw up in my mouth when I hear that.”*
I read the prayer, but I didn’t remember being offended. Admittedly, I’m a traditionalist when it comes to what I call God in prayer. Even through all my whining and informal prayers, I tend to call him Holy Father or Heavenly Father. I cringe when someone calls him Daddy God. It just seems so . . . hippy dippy. Hint: As contemporary as I can be, hippy dippy is not a compliment.
Still, I know that when they pray, not everyone calls God the same thing that I do. They pray to:
- Ruler of the Universe
- Lover of Justice
- Our Creator
- Lord of Might
- Our Comforter
- Ancient of Days
- King of Kings
- Lord of Hosts
What was the name of God that opened the prayer? Holy One.
The reality is that not everyone calls God the same thing. The name that they use depends on where they grew up, when they grew up and their circumstances. A woman who had an abusive father, might not be comfortable calling our loving God, Father. Someone who works in education might prefer Teacher, as Christ was called by his disciples.
And does it really matter what those around us call him? The important thing is that they talk to Him, they spend time with Him, the hear Him. Instead of being judgmental, we might ask them why they use the name that they do and then listen and hear their answer.
I’m sorry. I’m writing to you today, not knowing where (or even if) you are living. I hope you are. I hope things turned out well for you, that you got clean, had a family of your own, sought help for your demons. I was just a child then, and I suppose I didn’t know any better. But I’ve been holding this apology in for a long, long time.
I remember when your parents borrowed my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette player. You had recorded a message for them from Vietnam, where you were fighting. You were probably just a kid yourself. Then, you came home. Neighborhood gossip said you’d picked up a heroin habit during your tour of duty. I watched you sit outside, on your parents’ front lawn, in your green flak jacket and play your guitar. And I was terrified of you.
I thought you might kidnap me and force me to take drugs, and then I would jump out a window to my death like Art Linklater’s daughter did. I didn’t know she was actually sober at the time, that Linklater had lied about her death because suicides can’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries. I believed in “Go Ask Alice,” and the “Blueboy” episode of Dragnet, where kids who took drugs just once ended up dead or burbling idiots.
You were just a young man who had seen too much, too soon, and if you shot up or smoked pot to cope, who were we to judge? Heck, you may not even remember me. Let me remind you: I was the little girl who, on her way home from kindergarten class, caught sight of you and immediately began running, as if you were evil incarnate. I’m certain I looked frightened. And what had you ever done to me? I remember dreading that you might be outdoors, scared that I wouldn’t see you until too late. You were my childhood bogeyman.
Would it have changed things for you if I had stopped and smiled? If I’d listened to your music? Did you notice me, and if you did, did it hurt you? For a long time, I’ve been sure it did. For that, I am sorry. You fought for our country and came home to an atmosphere that was solidly set against you. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that you were just another kid trying to figure things out the best he could. I didn’t know how badly you must have been hurting, to use drugs as a coping mechanism. No one talked about PTSD in those days.
If you are out there somewhere, please hear me: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m sorry. I wish I had been kind to you.
Perhaps this apology means nothing to you or to anyone. But I needed to do it, for the good of my own soul. I’ve prayed for you many times since those days. Wherever you are, I wish you peace. Please forgive me.
As I was making my son some Ramen, we sat in the kitchen and chatted. I told him the story of the first time I ever cooked anything for his father, some twenty-five years ago.
Oh yes. It was Ramen Noodles.
So I told my son that back in the days of yore, I made his Dad the Ramen, poured in the little seasoning packet, and put it into a bowl. At that time, Ramen wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, and I had never had it before. I looked at the package. It showed a bowl filled with noodles, but I didn’t see any broth in the picture.
Is this noodles? I asked myself. I thought it was soup, but based on the picture, maybe it’s just a noodle side dish.
I drained out the liquid.
Serving it to my then-husband, he looked puzzled. “Something is missing here….” he said, explaining that it usually has broth in it.
My son laughed as I told the story. Now, back in our time, I finished making his Ramen and poured it into the bowl. I handed him a spoon.
“Something is missing, Ma,” he said, smiling.
I had forgotten to pour in the seasoning packet! Dagnabbit.
So I admit it. I often order out or bring home meals from food places in our town. My son will actually get a better meal this way, with all of the ingredients included.
I used to feel guilty about this. But now I see that I’m doing the best that I can with the hand I’ve been dealt. My MS affects my memory and my cognitive abilities. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled to get my side dishes to be done at the same time as my entrée. I remember once during a dinner party years ago, forgetting the two-cups-of-water to one-cup-of-rice ratio and reversing it. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t seem to master this skill that is so important in the life of a family.
Cooking, gathering over the meal, savoring tasty dishes. It just isn’t something I’ve ever been able to do well. Some people who don’t do well with plants have a black thumb. I guess I’ve got a black oven mitt! I’m sure Martha Stewart would look at my caved-in casserole, shake her head and say, “I’d rather go back to jail than have to eat this! It’s a bad thing.”
I’ve come to the conclusion that everybody has something to deal with. Don’t give yourself a hard time for what you can’t do; focus more fully on your gifts, and give that your all. Do your best to work around shortcomings – black oven mitt and all – and trust that God will take care of the rest. And put the pizza place on speed dial.
It’s what I like to think. I didn’t say it was particularly realistic.
The problem is that when I curb my tongue, I often go too far. When I try to dampen down my response I often don’t react beyond a thought in my head. “Wow. That was racist.” I think it, but that’s as far as it goes. I’ve gone beyond pacifist straight into passive.
Unfortunately, passive is just as bad as losing your temper. When you’re passive, people make the assumption that certain things are acceptable.
Yesterday we had a swim meet. An away meet, we found ourselves in a community that is less diverse than our own. Yes, non-whites are there but in low enough numbers that the whites still live in denial.
As they left the building, a swimmer on the other team put on an ape mask. “Oh, it’s just a mask. He didn’t mean anything by it.” Really? Then why did he wait until his coach couldn’t see him?
Our swimmers got the message loud and clear and the adults in our group immediately got to work settling our swimmers down. These boys are close. They may give each other grief but if you insult even a handful of them, you’ve insulted them all. We kept them out of trouble but was that all we should do?
Did I want to be passive about this or peacefully protest? It took time to calm myself down enough to communicate effectively and then to convince myself that really, I had to do something. I know God wants me to protest injustice but why me? Why couldn’t someone else do something? Because, I’m an adult, I saw what happened and, I know it’s wrong.
I opted for peacefully protest. I don’t know who the coach is, but I’ve sent an e-mail to the principal of the school. It took me some time to compose a polite message that still said what I had to say loud and clear — This is not acceptable. I protest.
So when they see me, their natural instinct is always to tell me about their own illnesses. Of course, they mean well. They believe that by doing this, they’re showing concern for my well-being. But honestly, I’m not too fond of the fact that I’ve come to symbolize pain to them.
When I think about it, I really don’t know anything meaningful about them. I see the cashier at the store once a week, and I know about her infirmities in great detail. But what of the dream in her heart, perhaps it was to be a dancer in a ballet troupe? Or maybe she wanted to own a little flower shop, selling peonies and zinnias. Why is it that tragedy and turmoil have become the “greatest hits” of our lives, when somebody asks us who we are?
The dream in my own heart is to find a way to embody hope and not pain. I want to become so connected with positivity and encouragement that those I encounter at the mall or the post office don’t have time to tell me their problems. They’ll be too busy counting off their blessings for me!
I want to tell them to pack all their troubles in an old kit bag. Then I want them to drop that bag into the sea of forgetfulness. I don’t want them to carry that bag around with them, as if this is the sum total of who they are. Life doesn’t stop at the moment something bad happened, so don’t make those horrible things the point at which you stop living. The path goes on far beyond the pain.
So please, people. When you see me, don’t mention that I seem more wobbly than usual. Compliment me on my new purple sneakers! Don’t reel off your aches and pains to me. Tell me about your grandkids and your garden. Talk to me about your most cherished dreams, the wonder of a sunset, that beautiful sonata that lights you up when you hear it.
On this day, when we remember those taken from us on that indelible morning thirteen years ago, there’s something we can do in their memory. Don’t dwell on your troubles. Don’t stay stuck in the past. For the sake of those we lost, let’s live.