Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sickness Unto Death

So anyhow...I've developed this bronchitis feeling in my chest and have a phlegmy cough to go along with it.

After I made my decision to quit my job, Fellow Traveler predicted that, based on her own experience detoxing from destructive places and feelings, my body was going to start doing some weird stuff on its way to wellness; that I was going to feel worse before I felt better.

I think this is part of the process, my immune system going haywire -- exacerbated by my deathbed vigil on Wednesday. I can understand the primitive fear of dead bodies and taboos surrounding the handling of same, the "ghost sickness" of people like the Navajo. I have to admit that, sitting there in the close, warm nursing-home air surrounded by the odor of imminent death (yes, it does have an odor), I felt a primal urge to get clean -- to run outside and roll in the snow and take big gulps of cold, crisp outdoors. I spent the rest of the day feeling as if I had picked up the smell of death; that it had crept into my nostrils and into the fabric of my clothing and even into my skin.

This initiation into a new phase of life is not coming without cost, I'm finding.

Doin' the DO Feb.28: More Whine, Please

Psalm 43 Judica me, Deus

Give judgment for me, O God,
and defend my cause against an ungodly people; *
deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
For you are the God of my strength;
why have you put me from you? *
and why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, *
and bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling;
That I may go to the altar of God,
to the God of my joy and gladness; *
and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? *
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God; *
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.

There are penitential Psalms. There are cursing Psalms. And then there are some of my favorites -- kvetching Psalms.

Psalm 43 is a fairly mild example; but you see what I mean. "Why are people so mean to me? Why is everything so hard? Why do I feel so bad?"

I'm typing this as I lay on the sofa, swaddled in a lovely quilt we purchased from our Ladies Aid (who never got the memo back in the 80's that this was a politically incorrect name for their group). I have a hoodie over my head, gangsta-style, and am sucking down a hot mug of ginger-lemongrass tea to break up the bronchitis that seems to be creeping into my chest. I'm bone-tired; utterly spent from spending the better part of today at the funeral home.

I have no profundities to share; no somber reflections on our fleeting mortality and the wisdom of numbering our days; no memories about my aunt that I care to write about now. Because, right at this moment, it's all about me.

To me one of the great things about Psalms as devotional tools is their bold honesty. There's no holding back even one's darkest lizard-brain impulses. Psalms whine; they pound an alpha-male (or female) chest-thump; they wish violent death on the little children of enemies.

But it's worth noting that, in all of this, the Psalmists don't stay turned inward on themselves; they always inevitably look outward to God. "This is me. This is my mess. Help me."

Friday, February 27, 2009

A Forked Friday Five

No, this isn't a refugee from my food blog...this week's RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five challenges us to list five forks in our road of life, and how our choosing one way over the other changed our lives.

1. My college education was not a given; even though I was an excellent student, I had to argue my way into higher education over the objections of my father -- who himself was involuntarily "dropped out" of school after the 8th grade by my grandfather, who thought that education made boys effeminate, rebellious and lazy, and was a complete waste of time for girls. Once that battle was over, I had a choice between attending the regional state university -- 45 minutes from home, fairly inexpensive; offered me a big scholarship -- and attending Michigan State University, which while also actively wooing me was more expensive to attend. My parents, of course, wanted me to go to the smaller, closer school. I resisted; I'd visited the MSU campus and had fallen in love with its bigness and diversity, and frankly I wanted to be farther from home. Once again I won the argument. And I think that victory was one of the very seminal experiences in growing me into the person I am today.

2. After getting laid off from my first "grownup" job, as an ad rep for a small-town newspaper, I found myself broke, depressed and back at home. The country was in a recession, and there weren't that many jobs of any kind, let alone jobs for a liberal-arts major with exactly one year of serious fulltime job experience. I sent resume after resume; trudged dutifully to the unemployment office and to whatever interviews I could wrangle on my own. After many months, I happened to see an ad in the newspaper for a legal proofreader in Cadillac. It paid just barely above what was minimum wage in those days, and employees had to buy into the company health insurance themselves. But there was something about the company that sounded promising; that it might pay to start at the bottom and work up. So I applied...and was run through a gauntlet of testing and interviews; all for this chump-change entry-level job. I told the Big Bosses, at my last interview, that I was willing to move to Cadillac and live in a state of financial deficit until I could prove my worth as a long-term employee. I was hired. And that employment experience -- which, to be truthful, had its ups and downs -- really taught me how to work in the professional, white-collar world, both in terms of practical and people skills. I ended my employment there a manager, leaving on my own terms, and felt good about my time there.

3. I think coming out to myself was a major fork in the road. My feelings at the time were a strange mixture of joy and terror; joy at finally being honest with myself and God, and terror over what that would mean for my life from that point on; what to do next. What I actually did next was keep it to myself, for many years, so as not to upset my parents. In retrospect, I have no regrets; I did what I had to do at the time.

4. After my mother died and I was truly free to pursue my own life, I made a fork-in-the-road decision to try and network with other lesbians in my area. My initial forays into the world of online networking were so disappointing and depressing that at one point I decided, "Well, maybe I'll wind up being a kind of freelance monastic." Then I accepted an invitation from a couple of people I'd met online to meet with them and their new friend at a tavern not too far from my home on Mother's Day afternoon; a few of them who had adult children living elsewhere were feeling blue and wanted company. When the appointed time came to drive to said tavern, I went outside to find that one of my tires had gone flat as a pancake; here I was, 10 miles away from actual connection with other real women in my part of the world, and I couldn't go anywhere. (Contrary to popular belief, not everyone who plays on our team can change a flat.) This is how I met Fellow Traveler; I was desperate for a ride, so I called the individual who had organized the get-together and got FT's number. I then called her -- someone I knew only from a Yahoo profile; she had made it quite clear there that she was only interested in platonic, coffeeklatsch/travel pals, which was very okay with me. To my surprise, she said she'd come and give me a lift to the get-together, even though she was still recovering from a major surgery; she just needed to know where I lived. So, cell phones in hand, I navigated her the 10 miles from her house to mine. We went to the tavern; I ordered Buffalo wings, bleu cheese dressing and iced tea; so did she; we found the other people there alternately crude and boring; we decided we might like to get together again, without the others, maybe for dinner or a drive. And thus began our partnership -- over chicken wings.

5. I just hit another fork in the road: Stay in a job that was making me sick and sad, or take a big leap of faith and take a year off to learn some new skills, do more lay ministry, take a more active role in the household and otherwise come back to myself, as the saying goes? You know which road I've just set out upon.

Self-Righteous Indignation -- Crack Without the Pipe?

Don't ask me how I stumbled onto this , but it's worth a read.

Doin' the DO: Feb. 27: "Come and See"

From today's Gospel lesson, in the Gospel of John:

The two disciples heard [John the Baptist] say ["Behold the Lamb of God"], and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, 'What are you looking for?' They said to him, 'Rabbi' (which translated means Teacher), 'where are you staying?' He said to them, 'Come and see.' They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day.

Shortly after reading this this morning I stopped over at Scot McKnight's blog on Beliefnet, where he's been talking about a new book by a social researcher named Jean Twenge -- my apologies if I mess up the spelling -- discussing the emotional ills of today's young people. He talked about Twenge's assertion that today's teenagers suffer from, to use his own phrase, a kind of social anorexia -- social malnutrition caused by the empty calories of texting, Twittering and otherwise engaging with others only in the most soulless and superficial of ways.

My initial reaction was -- "Hey, wait a minute!" I've not yet warmed up to Twitter, but I do frequent what a friend of mine calls Crackbook. I blog. I am a frequent flier on the Beliefnet discussion forums. I would be hard-pressed to describe any of these pursuits as qualitatively "empty" (well, maybe the never-ending memes on Facebook). Especially as someone living where I do, the online world allows me to meet people and to build relationships with them in a way that simply wouldn't happen in the boots-on-the-ground world. There's value in that.

But this week has been, by necessity, a very boots-on-the-ground week, literally dealing with matters of life and death in a physically immediate way. It's frankly been a week where it's been a godsend to be able to connect with people in a tangible way -- hugging the nurses who were taking care of Marian when she died; sitting across the sofa from my pastor, who stopped by yesterday to help us craft a funeral service but also just to talk; having the physical presence of Fellow Traveler here at times when I just needed to hang on to someone.

Living three-dimensionally with others is hard. Sometimes it's messy. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes we still don't get all the emotional and social "food" we need to stay healthy, even in the midst of many people. But this is the place where life -- and death -- really happens. The world of words and ideas is one step removed from all this.

I think that's why we Christians, especially those of us at home online, often need to check ourselves to make sure that our Christianity is not being played out primarily on the yakkity level of "doing theology." We need face-to-face engagement with other Christians and with other human beings longing for social connection that matters. They, and we, need a "Come and see" that isn't just "Come and see my Facebook profile."

In what ways might I be experiencing "social anorexia" or contributing to that dis-ease in others? How can I more mindfully engage with the people I encounter in everyday life?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Doin' the DO: Feb. 26: Fretting

One of the Lenten disciplines that I am willing to let others in on this year is my attempt to reconnect with the Daily Office ; one of those things that I find spiritually salutary, but that for whatever reason I find incredibly easy not to do.

Today I was struck by a recurring phrase in the Psalm of the day, Psalm 37: "Do not fret yourself." In fact, I intially smiled at the quaintness of it.

But the fact of the matter is, I "fret myself" over one thing or another almost every moment of my waking life.

As I'm typing this, part of my chattering monkey mind is angsting over whom to invite to my aunt's funeral -- the invitation has already been extended to her caregivers at her nursing home, who in many ways became a real family to her...but what about blood relatives who haven't kept in touch in years and who really were not a part of her life? In another corner of my brain I'm feeling peeved about a frequent Beliefnet antagonist of the Southern Baptist persuasion who seems to stalk me on the discussion forums and post rebuttals immediately after my own posts, with an urgency that implies he truly thinks he's saving vulnerable souls from hell by contradicting me. Another part of me is worrying about why I didn't get my COBRA paperwork in the mail yet. Another part of me is anxious about...well, you get the drift.

My pastor was over today to discuss details of the funeral, and as we got to talking general church chat, he expressed his own frustrations with frettery over sermons -- how he has to overcome the fear of people projecting their own issues onto his words in ways that distort what he's trying to say.

"Do not fret yourself"..."Don't be afraid"..."Peace"...constant admonitions and exhortations throughout Scripture.

What would my life be like if I weren't so anxious and stressed and troubled and distracted all the time? What would your life be like? What are some ways to counteract "fretting oneself"?

Requiem in Pace, Marian

Those of you who are Facebook friends know this already: My Aunt Marian, a long-time resident in a local nursing home, died yesterday at 1:30 pm. (Strangely enough, right at the moment our midday Ash Wednesday service began.)

Fellow Traveler and I were with her during the last three hours of her life. This was my first real deathbed experience. It was not by any means easy, but I feel bery privileged to have been a part of the process.

We got the call to come to the nursing home around 11:30 and rushed there immediately. Marian was unable to speak, and could only respond in limited ways to questions. So...we talked. Or I talked, while FT and Marian's roommate Dottie listened. I talked about some of the special times I had at her house, and about her favorite things -- her gardening and quilting. I talked about how my life was going, what I was doing, and that everything was very okay with me. I said a very brief prayer -- Marian was not one to wear her spirituality on her sleeve -- thanking God for Marian and asking that God be with each of us in the room in whatever way we needed God to be there right now. Nurses and aides came in and out. "Jeopardy!" -- Marian's favorite program -- came on the TV and we thought we saw a flicker of interest as we played along.

At times Marian seemed to be aware of what was going on in the room, but toward the end I saw her eyes rolling upward; her breathing became irregular and labored. The pause between each inhalation increased...and increased...and then she was gone.

We comforted Dottie, who was in tears -- "She was my sweetheart; I'll never have a better roommate" -- and exchanged hugs with the weeping nurses and aides. We left the room while the staff got Marian ready for the funeral home and spent some quiet time in the empty cafeteria, then followed the funeral home director and his gurney back to her room.

There is a protocol in nursing homes that when a resident dies, staff closes off that wing and closes the doors of the other residents until the funeral-home people have left. In Marian's case, though, it seemed as if all activity in all the halls stopped; staffpeople all the way down the main hall stopped what they were doing. When the funeral-home director came back down the hallway with the body, everyone stood silently, many with tears in their eyes. Both FT and I remarked afterward that it reminded us of a state funeral with a coffin on a caisson rolling down a street lined with solemn mourners all paying their respects. It was an incredibly moving and dignified moment for a woman who had lived a very difficult life during which her dignity was repeatedly taken away -- by poverty; by unloving, unkind words and actions on the part of "good church people"; by mental and physical illness; by the daily, unavoidable indignities of institutional living.

I wanted to post an obituary for Marian that would paint a more developed portrait of who she was. And I will, later. But not today. Today we're just winding down and preparing for the funeral on Saturday. It's a sad time, but it's a glad time, as we think of her now dwelling in light eternal.

Monday, February 23, 2009

LC Does the Tigger Dance

Like Danny Boyle at the Oscars last night, I did the Tigger dance this morning on my way to my second-to-last-day of my paying job. Sixteen more hours (actually now about fourteen-and-a-half) before my new life of study...artisan apprenticeship...more lay ministry...gardening...housewifery.

Oh, yeah, baby.

Random Lenten Thought

We've been thinking about Lent in our household -- how to keep it in a mindful way.

To that end we've been talking about fasting to some degree -- at least changing our meal habits in a way that pushes us out of our comfort zones and helps us enter however briefly into the experience of the poor.

It's very easy, for foodies, to turn this into a kind of self-serving family Iron Chef exercise where we crack open the vegan cookbooks and wax creative in the kitchen: "Ah! This butternut squash soup is wonderful! We'll have to make it again!"

Is that really keeping a Lenten fast?

To me, sitting here this morning thinking about it, a better strategy may be to, a few times a week, eat the sort of food that poor people around here actually eat -- cheap carbs and expired-date canned goods of dubious origin from the local dollar store.

I saw a news report not too long ago where a working-poor mom talked about serving her children meals consisting of plain macaroni topped with ketchup. She herself often sat out these meals, to leave more food for the kids.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Word That Was Preached...

...for Transfiguration Sunday, at our place:

I bring you grace and peace from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We pray, Lord sanctify us in your truth, for your word to us is truth. Amen.

Many centuries ago, in Greece, a guy named Plato told a story. Here’s how the story goes: Once upon a time a community of people were imprisoned in a cave. They had been imprisoned there all their lives. They were chained in such a way that all they could see was the cave wall in front of them. All they knew of the world was that cave wall…and the shadows that occasionally passed along the wall , coming from gaps in the stone above them where bits of light could enter. Shadows signaled the rising and setting of the sun; or changes in weather; or when people or animals passed by. But the prisoners in the cave didn’t know about the sun or the seasons; they didn’t know about the people or the animals who lived outside. Their only reality was their cave, and the shadows that occasionally flickered across the rocks. The cave dwellers even gave the shadows names, because these were the only “things” they understood, there in the cave, staring at the wall.

Then one day a prisoner somehow got free, somehow found the mouth of the cave…and for the first time in his life he looked out upon the world as it really is; not just the fleeting shadows of life.

What would that be like, asked Plato, to finally see what’s real. And what would it be like to go back down into that cave and let the other prisoners know – to let them know that the shadows they thought were the sum of reality were only a tiny, tiny part of a big, complex, wonderful picture.

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his closest disciples, to a mountain. We don’t know which mountain, but it may have well been Mount Hebron in Caesarea Philippi, where many centuries earlier Elijah was thought to have his famous miracle smackdown with the pagan priests of Baal; a mountain important to the Jews of Jesus’ time because of its link to their past. We know that Jesus often spent time alone in quiet places where he could pray. Perhaps he would also sometimes take friends with him on retreats; or maybe this was a new privilege for his closest disciples.

But in any event, Jesus takes his friends to a quiet place on a mountain. And there, their reality changes forever. The Jesus they knew as their rabbi is changed before their eyes into a personage whose visual brilliance leaves them stunned almost speechless; who seems to be standing in a place beyond space and time, with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah; two of the great ancestors of their people.
For one moment, these disciples have a tiny glimpse into eternity. They have a glimpse of the One in whom and for whom and through whom and by whom all was made that is made, and in whom all things hold together; and they have a glimpse of how this One holds all of history, including their history as a people and as individuals, in his hand.

For the past few weeks, as we’ve journeyed together through the Epiphany season, we’ve heard Gospel stories that point us, glimpse by glimpse, act by act, toward a fuller picture of Jesus – a Jesus who is more than just another baby born during the census of Augustus Caesar; more than just another kid growing up in Nazareth; more than just a pious young carpenter in a place and time known for its religious enthusiasm; more than just another charismatic, compelling rabbi in an age filled with rabbis claiming to know something special about God. And now, in a blinding flash, we -- like Peter, James and John – see the reality of who Jesus is.

Why did the Transfiguration, this astounding event, happen? Why, especially, since afterward Jesus told his friends not to talk about it, at least not for awhile?
Maybe because God knows that, in our broken world, where our broken minds and hearts are so often preoccupied with the troubles and distractions of living, we need “God moments” – grace notes in our lives when, just for a second the fog lifts and the noise is stilled and we experience clarity: who God is; who we are; what it’s really all about.

A friend of mine recounted for me how, while holding his little daughter for the first time , he experienced a God moment where all his young-adult self-absorption and petty concerns fell away and he realized that this new little person was a miracle, a precious charge from God, who would need him and his wife from now on; he was filled with an overwhelming love and desire to care for and protect this child, like nothing he’d ever felt before. Another friend of mine, who had a near-death experience after a surgery, felt a profound joy and thankfulness for life afterward; that and a very strong, lasting impression that she should never take even the small pleasures of living for granted ever again.

We know that John, James and Peter were courageous witnesses of Jesus as God’s Messiah after Jesus left this earth. We also know that this made life difficult for them; that they experienced rejection and imprisonment; that James was executed by sword, and Peter was crucified upside down, and John spent his last years far from home in Ephesus, now part of Turkey – a long way from the Sea of Galilee. What kept them going through these travels and travails and persecutions? Maybe the memory of that eye-opening moment on the mountaintop with Jesus, even before his death and resurrection, provided them with a reassurance that Jesus’ news of forgiveness, freedom and purpose was real; that their faith was not in vain; and that death was not the end of their lives but just the beginning.

Of course, Jesus and his friends came down from the mountaintop, back into the world of the everyday. And we’re about to come down from the mountaintop, so to speak, as the circle of the church year turns. Beginning on Wednesday, we move into the season of Lent. Lent has been observed by the Church since about the fourth century. It’s traditionally been a time when Christians have sought to walk with Jesus in closer, more mindful ways as we remember his walk to Jerusalem, his passion and death. It’s a time when we try to get real about the destructiveness of sin in our life, and ask God for help in healing us. It’s a time when we may take on a particular spiritual discipline like devotional reading or prayer or fasting – a friend of mine calls Lent spring training for a more focused Christian life the rest of the year. Lent is also a time when, as we think of Jesus giving of himself for others – Scripture compares his life to a drink offering being poured out – we place a special focus on giving of ourselves and our resources for the benefit of others. Lent is about the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, boots-on-the-ground, sleeves-pulled-up experience of the Christian life.

But we can enter into this season of focused self-examination and discipline and service with the Christian hope that the shadows of our own sin, the shadow of the sorrows of this world that demand our attention , are not the whole of reality; that, thanks to God’s redeeming, reconciling love and grace that invites us into life with and in Christ, there’s a rest of the story that is bigger, and brighter, and better than we can imagine.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, into life everlasting. Amen.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Five: Time For a Break!

How fortuitous that this Friday Five should appear on my last Friday of (paid) work!

The question of the day: How would we choose to spend:

1. a 15 minute break A good cup of coffee and a quick read-through of the online New York Times.

2. an afternoon off
This will sound bizarre to those of you who hate grocery shopping, but one of my favorite ways of using up comp time is zipping down to our beloved food cooperative. The ambience of the place -- the music, the lighting, the aromas of ground coffee and herbs, the crunchy-granola-ness of place and people -- makes it relaxing and fun.
If all the people who angst in the crowded aisles, harsh lighting, blaring Muzak and general overstimulation of the average supermarket only knew they had an alternative...

3. an unexpected free day
At our house we like going on unprogrammed day trips. Oh, we might have some small goal in mind, but the journey is the thing, so to speak. Although, believe it or not, we have been cherishing unprogrammed days at home lately because they're giving us a chance to very slowly wrest order out of chaos at our house...shelf by shelf, box by box, room by room.

4. a week's vacation
A couple of days up north in the Leelanau, at Sleeping Bear Bed and Breakfast.

5. a sabbatical
That's a good question, since that's more or less what I'm doing now. I think the Benedictine work-and-prayer model is what I'm striving for, albeit work of a totally different kind than public-sector shillery. I'm thinkin' about the Indigo Girls' song about getting a hammer and nail and learning to use my hands, not just my head.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Joy Division...Not

We are playing church hooky this morning...I woke up, or more accurately Gertie woke me up, this morning with the best intentions, but somewhere between 7:30 and 8:00 am my body and mind declared, "No mas." Ditto Fellow Traveler. We're just tired. This past week has exhausted us. We want to have a quiet weekend with our diminished family wagons in a circle. (We're attending a Worship Workshop Weekend at church this coming Saturday -- basically bootcamp for anyone interested in helping during the service in any way -- that involves walk-throughs of Sunday worship for potential lectors, Communion assistants and other dramatis personae. So we are going to be churched, and churched good, by next week.)

Anyway...I am laughing because, over on Beliefnet's "Crunchy Con" blog, a regular named Iraeneus has taken to calling me HeretikChik. As I've mentioned, I read this blog simply as a representative of the loyal opposition -- even though I'm sure Rod and his friends would argue the "loyal" point -- but to me it's gotten increasingly nasty, negative and paranoid. Which makes me wonder, again, why Christians have such a tendency toward meanness and gracelessness. I thought we were supposed to be a joyful people, living in Christian hope. Hell -- give me a roomful of Buddhists or pagans any day.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hard Times

I don't know about you, but between the news of the world, the troubles in our circle of friends and our own ongoing family sorrows -- it reminds me of my pastor's account of a visit with a bereaved parishoner who told him that, "Right now, staring out the window is a full-time job."

I love this version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More," which I first saw a few years ago. (Note the very young Rufus Wainwright.)

And the people say Amen.

She Was a Good Girl

I am crying as I'm typing this.

Cassie -- also known at our house as Cassie May, Casserole, Princess Cassolatta and numerous other affectionate monikers befitting her personality -- traveled over the Rainbow Bridge this morning.

Cassie had been acting rather quiet and sluggish earlier in the week, and yesterday she began vomiting as well. We chalked it up to some ordinary illness, although we made an appointment with her veterinarian for today; and yesterday evening she seemed a little better. We took her and Gertie to the local cemetery -- one of their favorite places to run -- for a romp, then to McDonald's for ice cream, then the trip home with both dogs' heads out the windows. Cassie seemed on the way to normal.

But she wasn't. She began vomiting again, over and over. She moved restlessly from the bedroom to the living room, where Fellow Traveler was keeping vigil with her. She couldn't seem to sleep. She came to me around 4:00 a.m. for a little ritual we call "Auh-wuh love" where she licks my face and I give her hugs and tickles.

She was finally resting quietly on the sofa when I went to work this morning, but I had a sense of forboding.

I'd been at work for maybe an hour when I got a phone call from Fellow Traveler: The vet had examined Cassie and concluded that her kidneys were failing, that she was in pain that would only get worse, and that putting her to sleep today was the option that would let her pass with the least discomfort. Our vet, who's a traveling DVM, does not euthanize animals herself for some medical reason that escapes me now, but she maintains a relationship with the local animal control center, which has a quiet, clean room for putting pets down. That's where we took Katie, Cassie's older dog sister, when she developed a brain tumor and was nearing the end.

So I rushed home so we could all go to Animal Control together. The normally puppyish Gertie had been relatively quiet for the last day or so, staying close by her dog sister, and in the Jeep she looked confused and a little frightened. Cassie had jumped into the vehicle willingly but with noticeable difficulty; she wanted the window down, so we let her hang her head outside one more time. When we got there Cassie jumped into the front seat, into my lap, as Fellow Traveler got out, so I hugged her and told her she was a good dog and that we loved her. Then I stayed with Gertie in the Jeep while Fellow Traveler took Cassie inside. The doctor had called Animal Control to let them know we were coming, and to instruct them to euthanize Cassie as soon as possible, because she was a sensitive dog and we didn't want her to become afraid, waiting.

We had a quiet ride home. We tried joking a little about Cassie -- about all the times we'd threatened to take her to Animal Control for various misbehaviors. We got some lunch to take home; got the mail. Gertie sat on my lap.

After a fast, fairly silent meal we both began quietly falling apart. We turned on Sirius Coffeehouse for some music: Ben Folds was singing a cover of "Golden Slumbers," which elicited a new round of tears for me. Fellow Traveler finally fell asleep, exhausted, with Gertie curled around her feet.

Cassie could be all dog -- we called her our tomboy, because if any of our furkids were to get muddy, stinky or otherwise in trouble outdoors, she'd be the one. On the other hand, she could be a diva with the personality of a hormonal 14-year-old. Or she could be Snoopy as Joe Cool or the Flying Ace, staring off into space for hours on end engrossed in some canine fantasy that we could only imagine. After some initial disdain for our newest family member, she adopted Gertie as an alternately amusing and irritating baby sister.

Cassie liked to eat. She liked to sleep. She liked toys with squeakers, which she inevitably removed and treated as trophies. She loved swimming and running behind the Jeep on local two-tracks. She lived to chase squirrels. She loved the neighborhood deer, as long as they stayed on the other side of our property. When she was happy, she'd make happy piggy grunts. She'd greet us in the morning by grunting and snorting and waving selected objects -- shoes, underwear, socks, paper -- in our faces. (Once, when Fellow Traveler and I were still in the getting-to-know-you stage, Cassie pulled her own puppy photo album out from under the end table and brought it to me. Fellow Traveler says she was trying to seal the deal.) She could be incredibly obstinate, and snotty, and distant. She could also be sweet and affectionate, eager for kisses and cuddles.

She was a good girl. We will miss her so much.

Here's the song we heard today, coming back without her:

Once there was a way to get back homeward
Once there was a way to get back home
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
And I will sing a lullabye

Golden slumbers fill your eyes
Smiles awake you when you rise
Sleep pretty darling do not cry
And I will sing a lullabye

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cute Child Moment in Church

It's pre-service, and the pastor is revving up the praise-music types and preemptively wearing out the children by engaging in a by-request sing-along. One of the little kids suggests "This Little Light of Mine," which is a favorite because the kids learned hand motions for this song at summer camp.

So the pastor is playing guitar and leading the congregation in "This Little Light of Mine." One tiny tyke, encouraged by his older sister, joins the pastor at the front of the church and raises his index finger, his "little light." But as he gets into the song, pretty soon he's whipping his whole arm around and around his head in great circles as if he's lassoing a steer. For five stanzas.

Note to parents: Better hide your lighters.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Tuning In, Turning On, Dropping Out

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I read Rod Dreher's Beliefnet blog "Crunchy Con" from time to time to try and gain some insight into the religious/political conservative mind, to keep myself honest, and because I actually do enjoy Dreher's commentary on the crunchy lifestyle. (This coming from someone who likes to send frissons of fear into my partner with remarks like, "I wonder what it would be like to build our own little chicken coop behind the garage," or "Do you think we could grow enough potatoes to feed ourselves for a year?")

With that in mind, soon-to-be economic dropout that I am I actually found myself feeling some affinity for Dreher's latest post, where he muses about the desireability of simply cutting one's attachments to a dominant society on the brink of collapse and embracing a kind of Christianized old-hippie anarchy...following in the footsteps of the ammas and abbas fleeing Byzantium and their spiritual children.

Dreher has also recently posted, with approval, about a small group of young Roman Catholics who independent of any parish or religious order have shunned their peers' popular-culture value system to adopt a monastic lifestyle in the big city, practicing voluntary poverty and service to the poor.

But...I can't help but notice that religious conservatives -- and, to be perfectly honest, religious liberals as well -- seem to want it both ways: They want to be countercultural, but they want to control the dominant culture. They want to drop out, but they also want to be class president and prom queen.

Can't have it both ways, people. You can't "not give a damn" and want to win.

Republican Fiscal Responsibility in Action

Perhaps we were meant to bow our heads in prayer with an appropriate table grace for this plate of pork that was finally excised from the economic stimulus package:

Senate Rejects Stimulus Aid for Religious Buildings

Friday, February 06, 2009

Friday Five: Favorite Things

I am having a really crappy day today, so maybe it's a good thing that our Friday Five is about "My Favorite Things" -- our little touchstones that make us feel better when we're angry, sad or frustrated.

A quick list of five for me:

1. Green plants, indoors or out, mine or someone else's.
2. James Taylor -- aural Xanax for the middle-aged.
3. Pets initiating contact. It's one thing to be friendly to an animal; it's another for an animal to be friendly to us.
4. A snowy or rainy day indoors.
5. Sleep. It's not just that I need to sleep; I enjoy sleeping. I enjoy the sensation of being tucked into a nice warm comforter in the dark and just drifting off into oblivion. I know people who actually dislike and fear that same sensation; not me.

Endings and Beginnings

Candlemas is one of those asterisked Church holidays whose origins suggest roots in pre-Christian northern Europe. Oh, sure, we have Baby Jesus being presented in the Temple; we have the tradition of blessing the year's church candles. But we kind of know, deep deep down, that this is really all about light; about that cusp of darkness and light, death and rebirth, that touches those of us in the Northern Hemisphere in a primal, intuitive way right about now: longer days, but days lit by greasy, dim skies; days that alternate between bitter, dry cold and the rawness of rain and snow melt.

I found this prayer the other day and thought it was fitting for the first week of February, around here.

God of all creation,
of bare forest and low northern skies,
of paths unknown and never to be taken,
of bramble, sparrow and damp, dark earth.
We thank you for loss, for the breaking of the dimming year,
We thank you for light, even in its seeming midwinter failing,
We thank you for life, for its hope and resistance,
Like a seed dying and living.

—Rachel Mann

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Time For Tat

A welcome interlude in the midst of heavy stuff around here:

One of our parishoners is a gifted seamstress who's created many wonderful paraments for our church, including lovely Ordinary Time pieces embellished with rolling, textured landscapes of patchwork. While chatting with her about other things today she mentioned that she has a good bit of material left over from this project that she'd like to make into a banner, but was struggling with a theme.

I said I'd think about it. Our synod has been emphasizing earthkeeping, so between that thrust and this woman's other artistic creations for "green" Sundays I'm thinking something along the lines of "And God Called It Good," or "All Things Bright and Beautiful...The Lord God Made Them All"...something like that. Do any readers have any other ideas for our banner?

Matters of Life and Death

Today we got the sad news that the ailing husband of a coworker/friend of mine, who’d spent much of the last two months at the Cleveland Clinic, died yesterday. She’d been at work on Friday, the first day in a long time, and had told us how happy she was that her husband was home and feeling much better, seemingly on his way to a “maintenance” stage of his heart problem.

Yesterday our friend G’s mother – a vigorous lady in a family without a history of serious disease -- was operated on for a suspicious mass in her abdomen, and the doctors found tumors in multiple places. Last month another fellow parishioner lost both parents within the span of about a month.

And of course my aunt is unwillingly clinging to life on a day-to-day basis. I visited her yesterday during lunchtime in the Restorative Dining Room where aides spoonfeed patients who cannot eat on their own; she kept falling asleep between spoonfuls of food, and I could tell that every interruption was wearing on her. When I asked her how she was doing she frowned and murmured, “Not well at all.” And of course there was nothing I could do to change that.

It seems lately we’ve been buffeted by this type of thing, nearly every single day.

My pastor was recently asked how he copes with the constant burden of bad news he’s asked to bear. His response was that he sometimes has to take a time-out and remind himself, “How are you, right now, at this very second? You’re breathing in and out. You’re alive. And that’s enough, right now.”

Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. And sometimes I need to remind myself that it is, in its own way, a privilege to be invited into a family circle that is suffering. Fellow Traveler and I have been in regular contact with our friend G, who traveled out of state to be with her mom and dad, and through her we’ve become a part of her ext ended family circle. When I called her the other night she announced to the others, “It’s the E’s.”(Our first names.)

I also need to remind myself that these experiences are the real, important stuff of life – so much more so than the petty office machinations and interpersonal frictions that tend to preoccupy my consciousness. And this nexus of life and death is where most of the suffering world lives, day to day.

Gertie Love...God's Love

Over on Beliefnet our gang of frequent fliers has been discussion the question of whether animals have souls/enjoy an afterlife. I mentioned C.S. Lewis, and how while he couldn't quite bring himself to imagine that every sentient being on the planet lives on in the life to come -- he speculated that perhaps they do as a species or Typ but not as individual creatures -- he did theorize that perhaps, just as we are called into relationship with God, made children and heirs to God's household, our love and care for our companion animals likewise transforms them and allows them to join us in eternity.

A bit of British pet sentimentality? Maybe. But if Lewis was on to something, I think our Gertie exemplifies what he meant.

I woke up this morning with an odd sensation of wet on my nose. It was because Gertie had snuggled up next to me, face to face, and was actually breathing my breath. Some mornings she actually hugs me awake. She loves us so intensely -- Fellow Traveler says that she's never experienced such a sweet, loving dog. It's hard to think back just a year and remember the filthy, feral pup shivering in the back seat of our Jeep, warily watching us...or to the really tough problem months when she was obsessively chewing up hundreds of dollars of our belongings, from seat belts to wristwatches...when we wondered if she'd ever bond with us or grow into a "good" dog.

Gertie and I just played "Foot" this morning. It's her favorite game; she begs for it by falling on her back and looking up beseechingly, feet drawn to her chest, tail barely twitching in anticipation. "Foot" involves touching each of her feet, in different sequences, and saying, "Foot!" When I change it up with "Ears!" or "Nose!" or "Tummy!" she grins. When I include my own feet, ears and nose, she snorts and wriggles in glee.

It makes me wonder if God feels a similar pleasure interacting with us, or sharing moments of spiritual intimacy with us.

I don't think one has to be a Dominican to appreciate the parallels between our relationships with our dogs (and cats) and God's relationship with us.

The Rubicon


The other day at work I was told, breezily, to edit one of our informational materials in a bigoted and offensive way -- to remove an illustration because the figures in it were "too ethnic," with the comment, "It's not that I'm prejudiced, but we just don't have those people living around here."

So it's not a matter of if I quit, but when and how. I'd love to just pile my stuff on my desk over the weekend, topped with a terse resignation letter, but I suppose that's not a good thing. But if I give my two weeks I'm likely to be formally escorted out the door that same day in a simultaneously paranoid and intentionally humiliating way, because that's the kind of place it can be.

Recession reschmession.

My first step today: Calling my Thrivent guy to find out about individual health insurance. This is worth breaking into my modest family legacy for, for the next year.

Monday, February 02, 2009

I Had a Dream...

I had a dream last night that I was back in college, but still working at my office, which had relocated to my old dorm at MSU. (Note: I had chorizo chili, chips and beer for supper, which may have provided fuel for all this.) After wandering through the hallways, noting changes -- they'd gone co-ed, and built on specialty mini-dormitories including one for fans of women's golf -- I sadly trudged to the office, dreading the morning...and I promptly spilled a glass of water all over our receptionist's stash of greeting cards. She was gracious about the whole thing, especially after I offered to go to the card store and buy her replacements; but my boss just glared, rolled her eyes and jotted something down in her notes.

The really sad thing is, my reality is more or less like the last half of my dream, five days a week. I woke up feeling as if I'd already put in eight hours.

Pets For a Change

Yes; I'm easily amused.