Friday, August 28, 2009

A Self-Affirming Friday Five

RevGalBlogPal's prologue to this Friday's Five begins:
Lately I seem to be encountering many people who have a very difficult time finding anything good to say about themselves. They are able to extend grace and forgiveness's to others but find it difficult to extend that same grace to themselves.

With that in mind, let's share some healthy affirmation today! Tell us five things you like about yourself!

Alrighty then!

1. I have a quick wit. I find humor in much of what goes on around me. It's kind of a survival skill. I'd hate not to have it.

2. I like to learn. I never, ever want to stop learning things.

3. I know how to express myself verbally -- a skill that's gotten me far in this life.

4. Animals love me. With few exceptions, I seem to be able to make up with most beasties...even feral cats and wild birds. I consider it a gift and a privilege to be able to engage in cross-species rapprochement.

5. I can cook for my own and others' enjoyment, even in my own inuitive/untutored way. (Don't ever watch me cut up vegetables, for instance -- Gordon Ramsey would drop a Hiroshima of F-bombs at my less than finessed technique.) I know some people struggle mightily with this skill, which they think of as a chore; but I love it.

Hey...that felt good!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


I gave myself the gift of an hour-long massage yesterday morning, after our crazy, tension-filled week.

My appointment was at an outfit called the Naturopathic Institute of Therapies and Education, located in Mt. Pleasant -- ironically in what used to be a funeral home. Part of the building has been transformed into a retail store, but the rest of the place is a school offering training in naturopathic medicine, massage and other alternative health therapies. I'd never been there before; but I was looking for something a little different than either the very clinical massage experience of our local medical center's PT department or the foofy, girly-girl massages at the nearby beauty emporium.

When it comes to alternative medicine, I'm like Agent Mulder: I want to believe. I truly believe in a mind-body aspect to wellness, and I also think that practices like meditation, various physical disciplines like yoga can make a positive difference in people's health, for reasons that can't always be explained by conventional science. I've had good luck with some herbal medicines (with the disclaimer that I've done my homework, and steer clear of the potentially dangerous stuff -- I'm talking innocuous herbs like peppermint and crampbark for "ladies' complaints," arnica cream for external bang-ups and so on.) I'm also enough of a revolutionary to feel satisfaction in seeking alternate answers to my health questions -- I think anytime we can safely and effectively go off the grid of Big Health and Big Pharm it's a good thing; fight the power.

But there's a whiff of snake oil in the alternative medicine universe. I felt that tension passing through the institute's retail shop, with its rows of homeopathic elixirs and books about the joys of colonic irrigation. It's why I wish that there were more accredited physicians out there with some academic and practical chops in integrative medicine to help laypeople navigate through all this, so that we're not left with a choice between eye-rolling by-the-book allopaths and quacks out of a 19th-century medicine show.

Nonetheless, my massage was heavenly. After filling out an information form detailing my health history and issues my masseuse, a slight young woman who nonetheless exhibited the body strength of a rugby player, attacked my constricted upper back, shoulders and neck with as much vigor as I requested...and then some. She did something to my spine that made it crack, but in a good way. She dug into the area around my kidneys, and seemed to elbow her way up and down my hips. She massaged my computer-stressed wrists, and made the tips of my fingers tingle. She pulled my head up from my neck and I felt like a turtle being stretched out of a hard shell. She pressed lightly around my upper chest, along the upper part of the breastbone, which momentarily startled me; but it seemed to create a soothing sensation in my back. She All the while I could hear, and smell, some interesting alchemy going on with oils and scents; unlike spa massages I've had, some of these aromas were not particularly pretty, but they seemed to have specific purposes. I could identify cedar, and lavender, and some warming potion that I think was Chinese linament.

I am definitely going back for more. And I'm re-dedicating myself to being a more active, less passive, healthcare consumer, even if it means veering off the beaten path of medical convention once in awhile.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Morning Delusional

No, I don't mean morning devotional. I mean morning delusional.

My morning delusional would begin as the sun slowly appears on the horizon. I would rise, go into our quiet front room and proceed with a leisurely examen, followed by Morning Prayer -- the whole enchilada, not the Cliff's Notes version for individuals. I would then move to the floor, roll out my yoga mat and do a few asanas to get the circulation flowing; or perhaps I'd move to the patio for some tai chi.

Here's how my real-life morning begins: I am startled into consciousness by the cold, wet, grassy paws of Gertie, who has already roused Fellow Traveler out of bed. A wet nose attempts to push past my lips as the wet paws slap at me.

Meanwhile a cat's head begins butting into my hair, accompanied by a loud purr. I feel Mollie's nose inserted into my ear.

"Brrrt? Brrrt?"

Gertie rolls on her back for a game of "Foot." Mollie leaps off the bed, runs to the doorway, then stops and looks back, with some impatience: "So...when can I expect the Whiskas?"

May as well get up and make the coffee.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Churchwide Assembly

This past RevGalBlogPal's Friday Five -- which I didn't join in simply because I didn't have time or energy for the degree of reflection needed to comment intelligently on the good questions -- was all about "rules," specifically the spoken and unspoken rules that have guided our relationships.

I came from a family with a lot of unspoken, subtextual rules, not all of which were conducive to a healthily functioning family. One such rule was, "Don't disrupt the household peace by making your father angry or your mother upset." Because my dad was a very angry man, one whose life frustrations and limitations would, with regular frequency and little provocation, erupt like Krakatoa, with yelling that would literally shake the walls of the house. My mother was a very fearful, emotionally brittle woman; earlier in her life she'd had what they used to call a nervous breakdown, and after that point her ability to process anxiety was very limited. (For those of you who've read Jean Shinoda Bolen's book comparing dysfunctional, power-over family relationships to the Teutonic Ring cycle -- this is all familiar territory.)

When I was in middle school, around the end of the school year I took the pre-band music aptitude test administered by the school and received the highest score of my class. A few weeks later, at the beginning of summer vacation, school band teacher came to our house to congratulate me, to introduce himself to my parents and to explain the school music program to them. My father, without missing a beat, told the band instructor that he -- working man who breaks his back for long hours every day to pay the bills -- did not have time to chauffeur me back and forth from practices and ballgames and furthermore wasn't going to waste money on purchasing a musical instrument that was going to do nothing to further my ability to find a job as an adult: "We're not interested. You can leave now, and don't come back." My mother burst into horrified, embarrassed tears as the stunned teacher backed out of the house. That was the precursor to one of those epic domestic fights that live in family memories for decades. I think my mother wound up taking to bed while my father cursed and slammed doors and avoided my presence. I was numb; I retreated to my room and to farm fields for days.

My lessons from this little familial episode, and all those surrounding it before I finally left home: "If something good happens to you, something bad will inevitably follow"; "Don't do anything, even a good thing like acing a test, that is going to make other people angry or sad"; and, most importantly, "This is all your fault."

As you might imagine, it's taken some therapy for me to see how messed up my parents' relationship with one another and with me actually was, to see how misplaced my own shame for thinking that there was something wrong about me that precipitated these cycles of emotional abuse, and to grieve for myself and my lost opportunities as well as for the brokenness of my family.

Still, while catching bits and pieces of the CWA debate last week, even with the jaundiced eye of a natural cynic who can sometimes find such exercises in group discernment a little precious -- Hey! The ELCA is officially against malaria! Yay, us! -- I found myself experiencing that same feeling of doom I felt all those years ago, sitting at our kitchen table with my music aptitude test in my hand while my father thundered and my mother wept and cowered. I wanted to run -- to my room, under the covers; to the dark, dust-moted, fragrant comfort of the hayloft; to the grove at the far end of our pasture where I could sit under one of the ash trees and hug my dog, crying into his thick fur, and plot my liberation. Someday...someday...things would be different.

I want to say that I greeted the news of the CWA vote on LGBT participation in the ordained and rostered leadership of the church, and on the recognition, blessing and call to accountability of committed, monogamous same-sex relationships, with relief and rejoicing. I want to say that I found the general tone of sobriety and prayerfulness, and call for mutual respect and civility comforting and refreshing.

But on some level I'm still sitting in the dark, thinking, "This is all your fault. Again."

And in Other Family News...

We got a call last night from Son #1 announcing that he and his partner are making it legal in Boston next weekend. Son #2 and Semi-Daughter-in-Law -- the ones we've been silently rooting for to make it legal first, or at least in addition, what with in-utero G-baby and all -- are attending as witnesses. Yes, we appreciate the irony.

Respective moms of the happy couple have been invited to a reception at the end of January. Because -- well, we're not in the loop to understand the "whys" of The Kids' timetable.

Fellow Traveler is having a difficult time with all of this...actually, she's had one hell of a week, and this news, happy as it was, just capped it. Ora pro nobis.

Ties That Gag

Perhaps you need some levity after that last post. (I'm still wiping my smarting eyes after reliving the last few days.)

For reasons I can't explain, at some point during this medical emergency we said we'd invite FT's other sister and niece for a final familial send-off barbecue last night.

Now, I am pleasant with this SIL; we get along all right. But she has a sense of entitlement to FT's home and belongings that I, only child that I am, do not understand.

Yesterday, after arriving, she and FT engaged in semi-kidding -- and I mean semi- -- banter about a chalk landscape in our living room that SIL has, more than once, indicated that she intends to confiscate in the case of FT's departure from this mortal coil. But then she proceeded to take herself on a full visual tour of our home, noting and evaluating our collectibles: their mother's Brazilian iced tea samovar (I'm sure there's some special Portugese term for it, but that's what it is); our living-room lamps; my glass collection; our everyday dishes; our dining room table ("It has such a nice surface"); my great-grandparents' steamer trunk from The Old Country, which is now in our front room. On and on went the verbal inventory of our things.

I experienced flashbacks of the family broughaha that ensued after my paternal grandmother died, when the siblings all fought like cats and dogs for photos and Christmas ornaments, and FT's description of her former in-laws, after her partner died, backing up to her house the very next day with intent to load up pretty much everything that wasn't nailed down, before she stopped them.

"I almost asked your sister to empty her pockets before she left," I told FT, trying to inject some levity into what had been a generally un-funny day, let alone week.

I guess the moral of this story, kids, is to make your wills now. And to periodically change your locks. And that sometimes being an only child feels really, really good.

Ties That Bind

I hear tell that in the past week various weather events and CWA resolutions and other notable happenings have been going on in the wider world.

We've been rather preoccupied, you see, within our own family circle.

Fellow Traveler's sister and nephew came up from Florida last weekend to visit us and other FT family members. The plan was for them to bivouac with us for the second half of their stay, and go with us on a day trip to Mackinac Island, which our nephew had never visited before.

FT's sister is an alcoholic. Her drinking and other substance abuse problems have led to catastrophic consequences in her own life, including incarceration several years ago; she's a convicted felon. These days she maintains a certain level of functionality during the day -- she has a steady job and can pay her own way -- but as soon as she leaves work she starts drinking, and drinks for the rest of the day. She has a significant other who is also an alcoholic; her nights-and-weekends drinking buddy. Their home life is as dysfunctional as you might imagine. Her chain smoking has led to COPD, so she is never far from an inhaler and a portable nebulizer.d

Our nephew's dad, the sister's ex, is another substance-abuse casualty of the 60's and 70's. He is homeless, dying slowly of COPD and other health problems, and more or less lives on our nephew's sofa because no one else will take him in.

Our nephew -- who, FT tells me spent his early years being dragged by his neglectful, itinerent hippie parents from place to place, and who even spent time in foster care -- is a lovely, smart, funny and gentle young man who has, despite incredible odds, not only survived his childhood but has thrived in adulthood. He has a position of responsibility in a large company; he has a full-ride university scholarship and takes classes in addition to his full-time job. But he bears the burden of caring, in various ways, for two seriously damaged parents; he seems older, sadder, more serious, than his peers.

So he and his mother arrived this past week. She was edgy from the rationing of booze and cigarettes necessary in order to stay at her siblings' homes; she was also especially wheezy from COPD, spending a lot of time taking breathing treatments, and nursing a bandaged knee that she was reluctant to explain.

Our goal, as a household, was to help our nephew have as good a time as he could on what was also his vacation. And we knew that he was very much looking forward to a Mackinac Island experience, a place he'd never gotten to visit during his childhood. So we marshalled our resources for a fun trip to the Island and invited one of his other cousins to join us.

We arrived on Mackinac Island on Wednesday around noon and had lunch just a half-block from the dock, with plans to take a carriage tour around the Island afterward. FT's sister had become quiet during the meal, which we attributed to simple fatigue after our long car ride up north; but after a short trip up the street to find the departure point of our tour, we came back to find her in acute respiratory distress, purple and gasping for breath. Our niece said that as soon as she'd gotten on the main street sidewalk she'd started having a severe asthma attack. She'd also failed to pack the steroidal medication she is supposed to keep on hand for such incidents.

FT, seeing the stricken look on our nephew's face, said, "Why don't you and your cousin stay here today. We'll take your mother back to the mainland, and take her to the ER."

So that's what we did. FT's sister seemed to rally even on the ferry trip back; the quick exit from the proximity of horses and the fresh lake air seemed to do her good. By the time we reached St. Ignace she was breathing more smoothly, and insisted that she was fine, that she just needed some rest, and that she'd be happy to simply sightsee from our vehicle until it was time to pick up the kids. So we did that for an hour or so, up to the Les Cheneaux area and back.

As we approached St. Ignace and the ferry dock, FT's sister began to struggle with her breathing again. "I think you'd better take me to the hospital after all," she rasped. Fortunately we knew where that was, and got her to the ER; she was so weak she needed a wheelchair. We were both terrified -- especially from my own experience with my mother -- that she was on her way to a full-blown heart attack. FT stayed with her at the hospital while I took the Jeep back to the dock to pick up our nephew and niece.

We wound up spending the night in St. Ignace...and another night...and another night; with an intervening trip back home to drop off the cousin and find FT's sister's insurance card. It turned out that FT's sister had the beginnings of pneumonia. The doctor was also concerned about her health in general, especially after FT filled the staff in on the alcohol abuse and smoking and general life chaos. On Saturday morning, before she discharged FT's sister, the doctor had a come-to-Jesus chat with her, with her son and FT present, about the consequences of her addictions. "You have COPD. Your smoking, especially, is going to kill you," she added. "If you're not ready to die, you need to stop now."

FT's sister was defiant. "When I quit, it's going to be on my own terms," she announced to her crestfallen son, who'd told us he'd hoped that her cold-turkey three-day cigarette respite would somehow get her over the hump of at least that addiction.

So that's how the drama ended; with FT's sister self-absorbed, surly and demanding for the rest of her stay -- and not only that, but displaying actual aggression and cruelty toward FT, who has done nothing but help her these past few days -- and our nephew trying to put on a brave front for us while running interference for his mom; something I'm sure he's had to do his entire life for both his parents.

It takes a lot to make FT cry, but she cried herself to sleep last night. She is completely spent from this drama, angry at her sister and heartbroken for our nephew.

Addiction, up close like this, looks like a black hole whose voracity swallows everything in its path. It is not only self-destructive, but incredibly selfish.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Vaycay: Da UP

Just a few travel pix from our journey to Hessel/Cedarville, then the southwestern Upper Peninsula:

We flatlanders aren't used to mack-daddy rocks like this boulder gracing the Hessel Cemetery.

Our very favorite tourist trap, just north of St. Ignace, run by a friendly but curmudgeonly older man who likes to talk current events. We were talking about the flat tourist season, and he told us he blamed the weather: "No one wants to spend big bucks taking the family to Mackinac Island and smelling wet horse manure all weekend."

Pte. Seul Choix Lighthouse in Gulliver -- a couple of past lighthouse keepers are supposed to haunt the property, but we didn't experience any paranormal activity the day we visited; just warmth and sunshine and a friendly docent. One of the unintentionally interesting finds at this site was the large pile of zebra mussel shells on the shoreline; zebra mussels are a rogue European mollusk, introduced by ships emptying their ballasts in the Great Lakes, whose voracious eating habits are disrupting the Great Lakes ecosystem. My thought, on seeing the sun-bleached pile of tiny shells, was selling them as landscaping mulch for the waterfront cottage crowd, if they could be mass-harvested without wreaking even more havoc upon our native wildlife. Any entrepreneurs reading this?

The light at Manistique.

This is an artists' collective gallery in the tiny village of Garden, on the Garden Peninsula between Manistique and Rapid River. We were wowed not only by all the artwork and artisan items made by UP artists and craftspeople, but also by the reasonable prices; why buy a Yooper tourist tschotschke made in China when you can purchase the real deal here?

The peninsula seems to have a more moderate climate than the mainland, with many farms -- a winery, even. There's also a tiny fishing village, Fairport, at the very tip, and a state park preserving the ruins of the old iron-smelting boomtown of Fayette; it's very eerie to see the empty public buildings of this totally abandoned community and ponder the impermanence of life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Wild Friday Five

This week RevGalBlogPal Mompriest asks: For this Friday Five, share with us a wild animal story from your life. Or if you've never had such an encounter share with us your five favorite animals, and why. Bonus for videos and photos!

And, on cue, I produce a photo of a wonderful wildlife encounter we had this week on the Garden Peninsula of Michigan's Upper Peninsula...this is a little curled finger of mostly farmland that juts out into the north shore of Lake Michigan between Escanaba and Manistique.

We were backtracking from a drive down the highway that runs lengthwise down the peninsula, through the village of Garden down to the ruins of the historic Fayette iron-smelting town, then on to tiny Fairport at the tip, when we stopped at a small cemetery just south of Garden to let Gertie burn off the energy that builds up when she spends time in the Jeep. (As regular readers know, our dog loves to slalom around cemetery stones.) As we approached, we noticed a large bird sitting atop a pole planted in the middle of the graveyard; as we drew closer I recognized it as an osprey, a "fish hawk"; these are not necessarily uncommon in Michigan, but pesticide use in the 50's and 60's and ongoing habitat destruction have taken a toll on their numbers. The bird sat impassively as we pulled up to the roadside.

"Look," said Fellow Traveler. "There's its nest." At a corner of the cemetery stood a much longer pole with a nesting platform and second osprey sitting atop, covered with assorted dead branches and a jaunty sprig of what appeared to be cedar poking up from one end of the nest. A human benefactor had added a plastic owl to a nearby post, apparently to scare away possible predators.

I slowly got out my camera, while the osprey on the lower post fidgeted. I was able to take one picture before it flew away, accompanied by its mate, to a telephone pole a short distance away.

This was the best wildlife encounter we had on our entire trip, including our unintentional excursion into the southern edge of the Seney Wildlife Refuge the next day during a random adventure into the countryside. We wish long life and many successful fledges of youngsters to the osprey family we met.

Bonus: I'm an animal person; have been since I was a child growing up on a small farm that was a veritable Wild Kingdom of fascinating beasties large and small. It's hard for me to pick favorites. But I will name five wild animals that I enjoy and admire.

1. Wolves. I admire wolves for their intelligence, cooperative behavior and well-ordered social life. They often seem to be a more well adjusted species than homo sapiens.

2. Crows and ravens. I like members of the crow family for all the same reasons. I think there's a lot more going on in their "bird brains" than even animal behaviorists think, which is why our ancestors -- across cultures, I may add -- considered them significant, sacred creatures.

3. Chickadees. I love the childlike nosiness and friendliness of chickadees; the way they'll, with little prompting, sit on your hand when you come out to fill the bird feeder in the wintertime, and the way they'll respond to human mimicking of their happy "dee-dee-dee" call. (The ominous two-note song that sounds like an English police siren is the unhappy chickadee call.) I remember being on retreat several years ago and encountering a family of chickadees in an old spruce plantation -- Mom, Pop and several newly fledged youngsters. They acted as if I were the first human they'd ever encountered close-up. They perched within touching distance; they clowned around like little parakeets, swinging on spruce cones and hanging upside down from twigs. When they sang "Dee-dee-dee!" I answered back, which seemed to delight them and animate their antics even more. Apparently I was the best entertainment they'd had in the neighborhood in a long time.

4. Robins. Robins are another species whose ease of interaction with humankind I find touching. I remember, back at Cold Comfort Cottage, digging a flower bed one day and finding various obectionable things -- grubs and cutworms -- in the soil. A curious robin had been watching from a short distance; I tossed a fat grub out onto the lawn, and the robin immediately snatched it up and took it away. The robin came back; I kept tossing worms in its direction, and it kept taking them. When I was done, we kind of exchanged nods and went our separate ways. Interspecies cooperation -- it's a good thing.

5. Coyotes. I have only seen a coyote in action in the wild once -- I saw one slinking through the grass in a woodland clearing near Lake City. But I love their smarts and adaptibility. I also enjoy their mournful-sounding little howls.