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Well, I might as well go all in and tell you about my colonoscopy. Oh, I’m fine. I got the all-clear from the doctor. But (there’s a pun. Sorry. First of many.) I have to say, I was confused by his report to my family physician.

To me, he said, “You’ve got pockets of diverticuli, which everyone gets as we get older. Maybe get some more fiber,” and he shrugged, as if to say, nothing to worry about.

In the report to my doctor, he wrote, “Counseled the patient at length about the importance of adding fiber to diet.”

Huh? At length? Let me think. Okay. He shrugged. Was that supposed to be code for: make sure to eat shredded wheat (despite the fact that it tastes like hay and you’ll hate your life every day of your life for the rest of your life. Enjoy!)  Finger wag would have made the point more clear.

My suspicious New Jersey mind went places. Why didn’t he tell me to eat more fiber? Hmmm? Is it because he secretly HOPES I’ll get tumors and he can make more money off of me in the future? Perhaps?

But I thought it through. He actually wouldn’t make any more gross income (there’s another pun! Yikes, indeed.) off of my tuchus if I did get cancer. He’s just the one checking the plumbing. An oncologist would be treating me in that case. Still being from Jersey, I wondered: what if he gets kickbacks for every patient that does develop tumors? Hmm? Perhaps?

Talk about your back room deals! 😕

Eventually, I came back to my senses and realized it’s just a matter of words.

The way doctors talk to patients is informally, to make sure we understand. The way doctors talk to each other is informed by legalities. They write in a certain way to protect their own ass..ets (hey now!) in case they get sued.

Overall, it was a moment I’d like to put behind me. Yuck/yuk. Kind people, that’s my TMI story du jour, but please allow me one final pun:

The End.

We try to tackle the big topics on this humble little blog: life, death, spirituality, peace, love, justice, mercy. So, in comparison, my topic today seems ludicrously flimsy and terribly vain: I am going to write about my recent decision to let my hair go gray, as it has been wanting to do, lo these many years.

I started going gray — white, really, if I’m honest — in my thirties. I’ve been dying my locks ever since. I consider being brunette part of my identity. I could never wear colored contacts, for instance. My brown eyes are also part and parcel of who I am. A good deal of this identity is wrapped up in pop culture: Brunettes are serious. They’re smart. My earliest role models were Mary Tyler Moore, Marlo Thomas on “That Girl” and Catwoman — all brunettes, all “making it after all,” on their own terms. That was my tribe!

So why change now? Why not go to my grave with my roots intact? Well, for one, my husband recently encouraged me to go natural. And if he doesn’t care, why should I care what the rest of the world thinks? Secondly, it’s a drain of time and money to continue to color my hair, and the chemicals involved are not as healthful and innocuous as one might think while watching a Clairol commercial. Third, why lie, even to myself, about what I look like? I like to think I embrace truth-telling. My white hair is a truth about myself.

But here’s the big one: I truly believe the purpose of life is in embracing the little “yesses.” After all, at the end of our lives, there is going to be a huge “yes” that we will have to embrace, like it or not. By accepting and welcoming each little “yes,” I prepare myself daily for the big “yes.”

And this is, despite being firmly entrenched in female vanity, a tough yes. I look at other women who are letting their hair go natural and I judge. It looks slovenly. Like a lack of self-care. And yes, I know that’s a horrible thing to think. I’m appalled at myself. But there it is. And this is what I will have to see in myself as my “skunk stripe” covers the crown of my head and extends, inexorably, downward. I will have to confront the worst in myself. I will have to deal with my own feelings about aging and about how women are judged and valued on their beauty and youth. I will have to see myself lacking.

And I will have to find God in all of this. I will have to grapple with a God who loves everything about me, but who created humans to love what is aesthetically pleasing. I will have to align myself with a God who expects my power to come from something bigger than a bottle of dye. I will have to say “yes,” not just once, but over and over again, every time my fingers itch to solve the problem with a box from the drugstore.

I am hoping all of this will be good for my soul. Because that’s the part of me I care about most. And it doesn’t need anything artificial in order to be beautiful, does it?

The middle-aged among us are in a curious position: We are becoming caregivers to our parents. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, but it is more prevalent these days — in the past, people simply didn’t live as long as they do now. My longest-lived grandparent was in her early 70s when she passed away. My beloved friend Marcelline is 101 and still doing yoga.

This shift presents real moral and spiritual dilemmas, as grown-up children navigate the line between respecting their elders and celebrating their independence and wanting to make the path smooth for their parents in their later years. It is not easy.

My mother lost her mother when she was barely 20. I know it was traumatic for her. But it also makes it hard for her to understand my concern for her: She never watched her mother live into her 80s. But in this period of adjustment, I have stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle of my own aging — letting go. Because that’s what getting older is — the process of letting life go, piece by hard-won piece.

I have to let go of my hopes and expectations for my mother’s “golden years.” Of course, I’d like to see her waited on hand and foot, tempted with fine food, made to do little more than recline while being fanned by palm-bearing attendants. That’s not going to happen. None of us gets to write the ending of her own story, let alone someone else’s. And there is my mom’s own tenacious will to contend with, too.

In the end, God will bear us up, as God must. In the meantime, there is poetry.

She never had to do it, so she doesn’t know
how it feels to touch the bird bones
of her hands, feel blood click a pulse
through ropey veins, the flat of her hand
a creased map of a strange valley,
each gnarled finger a beloved isthmus.
What to do with this hand when I cannot
take its lead, but equally cannot force it
to follow? I can only love it, seeing in it
my own hand marching quickstep, just
inches, really, behind it.

 

There is a very real phenomenon called “Jerusalem Syndrome”: Someone visits the Holy Land and experiences a psychotic break, fraught with religious obsession. Obviously, this isn’t something one would wish on anyone, but it illustrates rather vividly how some places can overwhelm us with their deep spiritual “footprints.” Some places simply seem more touched by God than others. I was in one of these places last weekend, and it provoked a poetic response:

There are places God has glanced
with lightest touch of hand, some swept,
palm to earth, and some in which God’s hand
sinks into soil like a sculptor’s hand in clay, that shout,
“Here I’ve sent saints; look the proof is all around you.”
And the heart stills, stops, halts — no, you are not
on the moon; the ground grasses green, sky pulses blue,
the smell of the place is ancient but known. And yet.
The silence is deeper, divine, the air crowded with
exemplary souls, and you want to join them —
shrug off your body like an old coat and disappear
into ether. Pierced to the root, overcome by a sun
that seems more heavenward than most, you
fill your lungs with quavering promise and slide
between worlds as easy as a body entering water.
If you could only stay, you would be saved.

Since we lost our cat Bella two weeks ago, the house seems empty. The irony is, we still have three cats. They are elderly, quiet, less active than they used to be. They are also the last three of a “pride” that once numbered eleven. Going from 11 to three is a dramatic decline. We feel like empty nesters.

Two feelings have arisen in me simultaneously: A desire to adopt more cats plus an equal desire to never adopt again. It is difficult for me to not want to help every stray and needy animal that’s out there. On the other hand, every time we lose one, it hurts dreadfully. I don’t want to hurt again, even though I know I will as three becomes two becomes one becomes zero. Each of our adoptees filled a special space in my heart. They taught me about patience, nurturing, joy and love. As they leave the earth, they take that piece of me with them.

I’ve had to analyze why it is I want to reopen what’s left of my heart to another animal. I think it’s because it’s easier to love animals than to love people. Cats appreciate the smallest luxuries, especially after a life on the streets: a warm bed, plentiful food, a clean box. But people? They’re complicated. Jealous. They come with baggage. It’s harder to please them. It’s harder to show them love. There’s no guarantee that they’ll purr in response to your efforts.

I clearly have a lot of love to give or I wouldn’t have adopted so many animals in my lifetime. What makes it so difficult to transfer that loving from animals to people? Maybe it’s because I understand cats. I can communicate with them. People, not so much, even though we do share a species, language and culture. You’d think it would be the other way round.

And it brings up the following question: Why can’t we accept the simplest acts of love from one another? Why do we look into every gesture, every word, for subtext, motive, hidden agendas? Probably because we’ve been hurt by those things before. If we could give and receive love as easily and freely as animals do, we’d probably be a lot better off. If all it took to restore someone’s good mood was a scratch behind the ears, I’d be doing a lot more scratching. And those good moods would be creating a mountain of good will.

So don’t be put off if some lonely looking woman comes up to you and offers you a sardine or rub under the chin. It’s just me, looking for connections in a simpler, stranger language. Take it as a compliment. Or hand me a kitten. Either way, I’m good.

When my niece was just a tiny thing — four, maybe five — we went to Disneyland together. Spotting a cast member (that’s Disney-speak for “employee”) dressed up like Jack Sparrow from “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, surrounded by (mostly female) fans, Sami piped up, “Captain Jack has quite the entourage.” Of course we laughed. What child that age says “entourage”? But of course she was right.

The other day, a lady I met at church phoned me about a party she was hosting. “Bring your girlfriends!” she suggested. I found myself conjuring up a fantasy life for myself, one where “me and the girls” went places together (possibly even during the week), drank wine liberally, chatted about the latest twist on our must-see TV shows. This vision lasted all of three seconds. Then I found myself awkwardly explaining that this was not, in fact, my life. Unlike Captain Jack, I do not have “quite the entourage.”

My friends are long-term and loyal. And few. One of them has been my “BFF” since fifth grade. Another has seen me through 30 years of living — I was the first person she called after she had her first child. My sisters-in-law are fully sisters to me. Our closest “couple friends” are, and have always been, my brother and his wife, Jennifer (parents of the aforementioned Sami). I consider Ruth and SueBE, with whom I share this blog, some of dearest friends…and I have never met either in person. The friend I talk to most lives in Indianapolis. I live in Kansas.

I often think it would be nice to have an ebullient, enthusiastic pack of friends who wanted to go out into the world with me and just have fun. But I realize I was not built for such things. I’m a homebody. I prefer books to parties. Like Greta Garbo, I “vant to be alone.” And that’s okay. Having fewer friends doesn’t mean I prize them any less. In fact, I cling to them.

You know who did have “quite the entourage”? Jesus. Mounds of people followed him. But he designated just 12 as apostles. And of the 12, we hear mostly of a chosen few: Peter, John, James, Andrew. Even fewer actually have speaking roles in the Gospels. Mostly, it’s Peter, the lug-head, who says something profound followed immediately by something profoundly stupid. And yet Christ built a church on him.

Jesus accepts us as we are, introvert or extrovert, mystics and simpletons. But what’s beautiful is that we all have the opportunity to be close to him — as close as any human beings can possibly be and more so. Your relationship with him can be deeply intimate. So can mine. With Jesus, there’s no need for an entourage. You’ve got all you need in one person.

Human beings are such touchy-feely creatures. I think that’s why God gave us friends. Certainly, all of my friends have moved my spiritual journey along in wise and wonderful ways. They are, in a word, good people. They are of God. Maybe that’s not the litmus test for everybody’s friendships, but it is for mine. Maybe quality, not quantity, counts in the end. Anyway, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.

Often, when I go for my hour of Perpetual Adoration on Friday, there’s already someone there — a little Vietnamese gal who spends so much time in the chapel, I’ve dubbed her “the lady who lives there.” She is a devout soul, spending hours on her knees. But the other week, she actually sat down and nodded off. I have no doubt that she woke full of self-recriminations, but I wanted to tell her not to. It struck me that there might not be a better place to rest than in God’s own presence.

“Stay awake,” said Christ
but surely he knew
how bodies give out, go limp,
sag as if in a warm bath
feeling secure, safe,
safer here than anywhere, ever,
before his presence in monstrance
and wafer.
To sleep before the Lord
is the sweetest of sleep.

The sleep of angels.
The sleep of saints.

Under God’s watchful eye
the soul and body rest,
ready to rise — like bread,
like spirit, like new day breaking.

 

Have a peaceful Christmas everyone!

I don’t go around thinking about Original Sin all that much. Who does? It’s like an old stain on a favorite shirt. Who remembers how it got there? But something our friend Lady Calen wrote recently caused me to have what can only be deemed a revelation: What if Original Sin isn’t what we think it is? What if it isn’t disobedience — which, let’s face it, never made much sense (“You can eat from any of the trees in the garden except that one. It’s the best one, by the way.”). What if it’s a little more personal?

Just after the fracas with the apple, God asks Adam and Eve why they’ve donned snappy little outfits made of leaves. Adam says, essentially, “We were naked, so we covered ourselves up.” But who told them that being naked was a bad thing? Who got into their heads with comments like, “Seriously, Eve, those thunder thighs. Put on a skirt”? Not the snake. They did it themselves.

What if Original Sin is a failure to love ourselves properly?

Take a minute to think it through. What if our inability to love ourselves is at the root of sin and hatred toward others? What would happen if we stopped running ourselves down and fully participated in the gifts we were bestowed? Maybe something miraculous.

But Lori, you might say (if you knew me well enough to know my name), plenty of people love themselves. In fact, they love themselves a little too much. Maybe that’s just the other side of the sinful coin. Narcissism is like looking at oneself the wrong way through a telescope. It has no more to do with reality than undermining ourselves constantly. And it can lead to the same failure to love others properly. Only after we are at home in ourselves — neither grossly overvaluing nor undervaluing our beings — can we properly live among others.

Does that sound too easy? Well, contemplate this: How many of us have managed to love ourselves properly, historically speaking? How many of us have got it right? Someone who loves herself does not start a war. He or she does not commit violence. He or she does not hate others, because he/she is secure in him/herself. So the answer to the aforementioned questions is this — practically nobody.

It is our lives’ work to know and love ourselves, to find our place in the world at large. That’s it. And yet we fail at it, over and over again. I’m not excluding myself. Just this morning I wondered why on earth I should love a short-tempered old cow like myself. I haven’t got the answers. I can only pose the questions.

But if loving ourselves is the point — if failure to love is our Original Sin — hadn’t we better get a jump on fixing it? Let’s start now, during this blessed season, by doing one thing for ourselves. Take a nap. Be content with the presents you’ve bought. Stop stressing. And just open your heart up, to yourself and to the world. You know, sometimes I put two and two together and make a pretty good-sounding “four.” I’m gonna rest in that knowledge today.

“Why can’t I just get a cold like a normal person?” I wailed to my husband. “Why must everything be so drastic?” It’s true. I haven’t had a simple cold in 25 years. It’s always a sinus infection, bronchitis, pneumonia — with a few oddities like cellulitis thrown in for variety. Sicknesses don’t strike me and go; they linger, dig in, build a nice home (sometimes an entire housing complex) and settle in for a good, long stay.

Which leads to today’s Catholic dilemma: December 8 is a Holy Day of Obligation, one of my favorites — the feast of the Immaculate Conception. It’s all about Mary being conceived without sin, being chosen from the get-go, a real “girl power” holy day. And I don’t feel well enough to attend mass.

Missing mass is a big deal. It’s a mortal sin. If you die in a state of mortal sin, it’s hot coals and pitchforks for you, buddy. No joke. But the church does allow for some exceptions — illness or care of a small child. But that doesn’t make the decision not to attend mass any easier.

Type “should I go to church when I’m sick?” into Google, then sit back and get ready for opinions. The answers are all over the map: “Go unless you are dying.” “Go, but sit in the back and don’t touch anyone.” “It is most charitable to stay home and not spread your illness.”

All of these viewpoints have merit. I do want to attend mass. It’s a powerful and healing ritual for me. But our church, rather than following the standard “altar at the front, then rows of pews” is rather more circular, with the pews nestled around the altar like an amphitheater. There is no “back corner,” really. People sit all over. It is not an easy place to isolate one’s self.

I don’t want to infect my pastor. I don’t want to infect my fellow parishioners, many of whom are elderly. I will never forget — much to my deep sorrow — exactly who it was that gave me pneumonia in 2014, or who insisted on passing on bronchitis to me last year. I attend church with them every week. Maybe for them it was a simple cold. But in me, already cursed with asthma and lungs scarred by previous bouts of pneumonia, every bug goes straight to my respiratory tract. What do you do when someone who has been hacking away all service long extends a hand to you at the kiss of peace?

But how can I reconcile not going to mass if I leave my house for any other purpose? I bought groceries last night. Otherwise, we would starve. But it took me out into the open, into the larger world. How was it okay to do that but not to go to mass tonight?

I am left feeling the weight of Catholic guilt (which, let me tell you, is immense) on top of my upper respiratory woes. I’m sinful and sneezy. Stuffed up and beat down.

I can only honor God to the best of my ability, which in this case will be at home, in private prayer and communion, along with hot lemonade and honey. Lord, accept me, mucous and all. I give myself to you. You won’t mind if I bring Kleenex, though, will you?

Looking at some of my old yearbooks, I’m struck by something — the number of times someone has written, “Thank you for listening.” One of my eighth grade friends called me her psychiatrist. Several high school friends note with embarrassment some of the topics they’ve obsessed over, but say they feel better having been heard. I guess that’s what we all want, isn’t it? To be heard? To be thought of as special and worthy and listenable?

Pope Francis, in an interview about The Year of Mercy in the Catholic church, talks about “the apostolate of the ear,” the ministry of listening to others and giving them needed reassurance that they have been heard. This is a ministry that anyone can be a part of; it is not limited to clergy. When we give people space to pour out their feelings — even if we don’t agree with them, even if we think they are wrong — we help them. We might even help others, too, by helping to obviate anger and frustration that might boil over in ways that are destructive to the community.

This practice benefits the listener, too. In opening our ears, we are opening our hearts (even if it’s only a crack), and allowing ourselves to be changed by what we hear. It is the start of compassion, which feeds into the infinitely powerful grace of mercy. Maybe what the world needs now is “love, sweet love,” but what people seem to need most is empathy.

So I’m putting the call out to all of you introverts out there: Join me in the apostolate of the ear. Let’s face it, we don’t much like talking anyway, so why not provide a service that costs us nothing and might save someone’s life? Unheard frustrations, anger and sadness can roil up into a hurricane — they can even lead to war. But once heard, those wounds — like the words that describe them — are exposed to air and can finally heal.

It’s easy to get started. Just open your ears.

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