Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Five: "Home Improvement" Edition

How very timely that, even as Fellow Traveler and I look forward to a weekend of finally excavating ourselves from the various collected messes of two major holidays, emergent disruptions of household routine and two dogs, the RevGalBlogPals' Friday Five is all about home improvement:

1) If you could, what room in the place you are currently living would you redo first?
Definitely the master bedroom, which badly needs a paint job as well as the removal of a ghastly border print around the walls. We want to turn this into our "Michigan room" filled with Michigan art and mementos from our travels.

2) What is the most hideous feature/color/decor item you have ever seen in a home?
For the hideous color category I'd have to nominate the home of some friends I knew in Cadillac, who bought a house with one bedroom painted entirely, top to bottom, matte black and one bedroom painted an eye-stinging fluorescent pink. The previous owners had let their teenage children paint their own rooms. 'Nuff said. My father's threadbare, duct-taped La-Z-Boy is certainly in at least the top three of hideous decor items. In the feature category, I might nominate a house I pass by frequently on my travels through Cold Comfort County, whose large front yard is almost completely filled with lawn ornaments. Elves...whirligig assortment of animals that includes a startling pair of fiberglass Holsteins...plywood bent-over ladies...mushrooms...kissing Dutch's like a putt-putt golf course designed by someone who dropped some really bad acid in the Sixties.

3) What feature do you most covet? Do you have it? If not, is it within reach?
It would be nice to have a sun room -- a four-seasons model with heating ducts and super-insulated windows. This is probably not in the cards for us; but really, with a perfectly decent patio and comfy front "sitting room," it's kind of a superfluous fantasy anyway.

4) Your kitchen - love it or hate it? Why?

I love the spaciousness of our kitchen compared to my tiny old galley kitchen. If there's anything I'd change it would probably be the faded goldenish countertops, which have that 70's-color-palette look to them. Something more natural and neutral would, I think, look better and take more kindly to the abuse of two cooks.

5) Here is $10,000 and you HAVE to spend it on the place you are living now. What do you do?
Rip up the carpeting in the living room and front room and install more pet-forgiving colors; paint the master bedroom; do something with the windows to better insulate them; re-tile the big bathroom and replace the mirror and vanity. (The sink, which I think was intended to match a light slate blue in the tile design, is instead a kind of strange swimming-pool-aqua faux marble.) I'm pretty sure this would eat up $10,000 fairly quickly; if not, it would be kind of cool to extend the kitchen window into one of those greenhouse windows with shelfing for some houseplants to add some additional color and life to that area.

BONUS: Why do you think there was such a surplus of ugly bathroom tile colors showcased in all homes built from the 1950's right through the early 80's?
I don't know...but it's true. I've never understood the desire for "baby" colors in an adult bathroom anyway. To me a great bathroom would have cream walls with green/ ferny/leafy/stony naturalistic accoutrements.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Myth Shattered

There's a myth out there -- I think a myth held and cherished by a lot of men -- that women have a kind of innate wisdom about birth and death; that they somehow Always Know What To Do, and that that's why women always seem to be attendant at these crossroads of human life.

I wish that this were true. And maybe it is for some women. But it's not for me.

I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' no babies. And, despite the death of both my parents, I don't know nothin' 'bout helpin' the dyin'. In both cases I am the emotional equivalent of my dad frantically chain-smoking in the waiting room.

The Pitfalls of Patient Empowerment

Today at work I got a call from the nursing home social worker.

"I need to talk to you about advance directives, because the staff have some concerns about your aunt," she said.

We review advance directives at nearly every care conference I have, every other month, in person or by phone. The deal has always been that if my aunt should become terminally ill, there will be no heroic measures to prolong the end, just comfort care so that she can pass as painlessly and with as much dignity as possible. To me, this seems like a fairly reasonable, and common, directive.

So I was confused by this phone call. And, because I am who I am, I heard in the social worker's preface a subtextual, "The staff thinks you've screwed up, and now your aunt is suffering."

I asked for some clarification. The social worker told me that the advance directive in my aunt's file had requested full intervention in any sort of emergent situation. I said I didn't understand, and re-explained what I've always told the staff at our care conferences. She then asked me what sort of intervention I do want them to do.

At this point I got a little peeved. "You know," I responded, "I am not a medical professional. You folks are the medical professionals. I have just told you that I want my aunt to have whatever palliative medical care will keep her as comfortable as possible until the end. You are the folks who would know what those procedures and protocols are. I don't know. And I am feeling very angry and frustrated right now because you don't seem to be hearing me." (Thanks to an assertiveness training class, long ago, for helping me remember to own my feelings in affirmative, first-person sentences.)

The social worker seemed taken aback for a moment. "Well," she responded, somewhat defensively, "I understand that you're feeling frustrated" (we're both reading from the same playbook now, I thought)...but I'll need to go through this list item by item."

And so she did. Did I want my aunt to receive CPR if her heart stopped? I thought of both my parents going through this type of violence to their bodies in the last moments of their life. No, I said; no CPR.

"Feeding tube?"

"Will that aid in her comfort, if inability to eat is causing her physical pain?" I asked. "If it is going to make her more comfortable and more pain-free, then yes."

"Blood transfusion?"
"If it is going to make her more comfortable and more pain-free, then yes."

"If they are going to make her more comfortable and more pain-free, then yes."

And on it went, my blood pressure rising with each question. What part of "more comfortable" and "pain-free" are they not understanding? I thought.

Fellow Traveler met me for lunch and talked me down. "It's all just CYA," she said. "They're concerned about 'regs' and audits and malpractice suits."

I understand that. Hell, I work in the public sector, so I live it. But it just adds to the stress of going through this experience. I'm reminded of my breast exam, when the doctor asked me what I thought was wrong with my breast. Huh? Did I go to medical school?

I know that in times past the godlike authority of doctors and relative powerlessness of patients didn't always serve the cause of medicine well. But it seems to me that there has to be some sort of happy medium between the old model and the new one, where it seems like patients and caregivers are on their own when it comes to medical guidance -- where they go to professionals seeking help and instead have information thrown at them with an attitude of, "You figure it out." I don't really think that this is "patient empowerment."

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

My aunt is still hanging on to life, although she seems to be growing weaker by the day.

The day before yesterday when I visited her after work, I found her lying there with her blanket over her head. For a second I thought, Oh, my God -- she's dead. They just haven't called me yet. My aunt's roommate, evidently seeing the striken look on my face, said, "She's awake -- she's just covering her eyes because she wants to rest." So I touched her hand, and said hello, and made some inane conversation. She responded with faint monosyllables. And I got the impression that I was disturbing the rest she craved, so I left.

Yesterday I wasn't feeling well -- I think in part due to stress -- so I called the nursing home. Aunt M was still much the same, they said, but complaining about pain, so they'd called in the doctor to readjust her medication. This made me feel worse.

Maybe it's because, these days, we tend not to go through the family deathbed experiences that people did in past generations when almost everyone died at home -- but I feel like a stranger and interloper in this whole process. I don't know what to do; everything I do seems wrong, and everything I don't do seems wrong. I keep thinking about the day before my mother died, when she was angry and belligerent, so unlike herself, and when I also felt that my presence at the hospital was making things worse, not better.

I'm also finding myself in the old territory of asking God Why? Not why my aunt has to die, but why she has to die in this way. Why can't she simply go to sleep and not wake up? I had the same question when she, in the years before her hospitalization, lost a grip on her sanity and became paranoid and delusional. Why?

And then I tell myself to stop being so melodramatic. Despite the family joke that I'm my aunt's favorite niece -- I'm her only niece -- it's not as if we had shared our lives in an intimate way. Other than spending a week at her house evey summer when I was little, I have always been a drop-in visitor to her home. And it's been the same thing since she's lived in her care facility; I'd stop in for maybe 15 or 20 minutes a week, or every other week -- and if she didn't feel like socializing she'd inform me, not unkindly but firmly, "You can go now." She truly has more of a familial, day-to-day relationship with the nursing home staff than with me. So it shouldn't be surprising that I feel like a bumbling, in-the-way visitor now.

Yesterday I called the funeral home where my aunt has a prepaid plan, and reviewed what we'd arranged for her ten years ago. My pastor is on standby for whenever it's time to hold services. This "bidness" end of things seems to be the only place where I feel like I'm being the least bit useful.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

And So the Magnificent Obsession Begins...

Almost as soon as I penned my Friday Five, mentioning the therapeutic value of endulging in some strange obsession during the "cabin fever" season, I came upon photos of moss terrariums like this one. (Search the term on Etsy .)

Is this not cool?

I enjoy terrariums, and once kept one going -- even got a violet to bloom in it once -- for several years. But I really like the minimalism of moss.

I might have to do something about this.

Friday, January 23, 2009

"Cabin Fever" Friday Five

The RevGalBlogPals Friday Five asks this important question, at least for those of us who live in the Snow Belt: What are five things to do to beat the cabin fever that tends to settle in 'round about his time of year?

Oh! Oh! Oh! [raising hand] Michigan girl here, a veteran of 48 winters, with some ideas:

1. Peruse seed catalogs. Or, as we like to call them at our house, garden porn. Nothing takes the edge off a subfreezing day like dreams of verdant herbs, prolific vegetables and bright flowers.

2. Play Scrabble. Who knew that this, and not our Wii, would become our winter entertainment of choice? Fellow Traveler and I usually have at least two games of our own going on Facebook, plus other games with assorted friends and family. If you're on Facebook, dear readers -- got game? "Friend" me...and we'll just see about that.

3. Conduct a Freezer Iron Chef competition. One household member selects a neglected bag/bundle from the freezer. Another household member is then offered the challenge of incorporating this ingredient into a creative and delicious home-cooked meal. We just did this; I wound up with a package of mahi-mahi, and turned it into citrus-marinated baked mahi-mahi filets, served with tamari-seasoned Israeli couscous and green beans. (You can read all about it on my food blog .) Related winter pastime: Competitive soup making. And in both cases, with any luck, everybody wins, all the time. Unless the freezer bundle is that forgotten rump roast from 2006.

4. Get fit with Dog Aerobics. As in: Let the dogs out. Let the dogs in. Let the dogs out. Let the dogs in. Let the dogs out. Let the dogs in. Let the dogs out...

5. Indulge in a temporary hobby fixation. I haven't done this in awhile, not since the knitting and counted cross-stitch eras of several years ago. When I was a kid I used to look at my aunt's January Better Homes and Gardens magazines, which always contained scads of crafting ideas -- Turn a discarded bottle into a vase with a masking-tape-and-lacquer mosaic! Weave a colorful belt with a drinking-straw loom! Sew old silk ties into a groovy midi skirt! -- and become entranced by some such project. It helps to have an understanding family during these times, especially if the hobby in question involves stuff lying around, or noise(Learn to play the ocarina!).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Trust Fund Babies

I was reading an online discussion the other day about converts; about how they tend to inspire a mixture annoyance and envy among "lifers." One of the discussion participants likened those of us who were baptized into our faith, who absorbed it via the osmosis of growing up in a faith community, as the religious equivalent of trust fund babies, or the boss' kid, or the legacy student. We take a lot for granted that converts do not; it's hard for us not to succumb to the complacency of cheap grace.

So what's a trust fund baby to do, do you think?

Coming to the End

I mentioned, maybe a month ago, that my aunt M, who's a long-term nursing home resident, was diagnosed with a twisted bowel; that she refused invasive treatment -- understandable given her age and health -- and that we were on standby for the inevitable result of that.

I got a call from the nursing home today, and M's nurse -- a very lovely, kind woman who's been with M for the long haul -- told me that M has begun to fail rapidly and that I should be prepared for the end.

So at lunchtime I visited M. She is deathly pale, and birdlike, and didn't open her eyes when I entered her room. She answered my questions in monosyllables, and made it clear that she was simply tired and wanted to rest. I had an unnerving flashback to the day before my mother died, when she became almost belligerant, and it felt like part of her had already gone.

Unlike my recent health scare, this is not a shock; it's something I've been mentally preparing for, for awhile now. But it's still sad to experience; and it's sad to see M's aides, who've taken care of her for so long, sad. M's nurse told me some of the staff were asking her to "do something," and she had to explain to them that we were all trying as best as we could to honor M's wishes for her care.

Tomorrow I need to call the funeral home where, a decade ago, we arranged her funeral plan, and make sure it's still what we think she'd want today.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

A New Thing

I'm sitting here watching the Obama concert on HBO, and smiling, and crying...singing along with U2.

I don't get too overtly political on this blog, God have we been living in a nightmare for the past eight years.

I know we've raised the bar far too high for President Obama...I know he faces untold challenges in this mess he has inherited...but it feels so good to be turning a new page.

God help us get our Constitution back again. And our dignity. And our hope. And our competence as a nation. God bless everyone of good will as we work together to live through these times.

Clueless in Castoria

First things first: It's come to my attention that, even though I still live in Outer Podunk County, I no longer live, technically speaking, in the community of Outer Podunk. Which poses a dilemma: What clever pseudonym can I invent for the town I now call home, which lies about 10 miles south of Outer Podunk? "South Succotash" is too Reagan-y; Inner Podunk is too spacy. So, at least for now, consider me a new citizen of Castoria. (The closest zoological allusion I can make to this community, whose name is cause for much local locker-room smirkery.)

Anyway: Yesterday Stepson #2 and Semi-Daughter-in-Law called us in a state of happy shock; an old college pal of theirs with Senate connections had scored them two tickets to the Inauguration. They don't know how they're going to get there, or where they're going to stay when they do, but they're going. They're over the moon.

Well, so were we...I mean, how cool is this?

FT had gone down the street to pick up a late lunch for us at the local pizzaria. As she was waiting, she mentioned to the woman at the counter how excited she was that her son and his girlfriend were going to be in the middle of history being made at the Inauguration.

"Oh. Where's that?" asked the woman.

FT paused. "The Inauguration is in...Washington DC."



"Oh. Do you want chips?"

The View Today

It's almost noon. The sun is shining down upon about eight inches of new, confectioner's-sugar snow. Goldfinches and chickadees are flitting from feeder to feeder in the back yard.

Friday afternoon, coming home from my doctor's appointment, we had said that we'd better be spending Sunday prostrate on the church floor in thanksgiving. What happened instead, after packing and closing up Cold Comfort Cottage for the last time yesterday, was that we collapsed both physically and emotionally last night, fell into bed...and slept in. FT is still so exhausted that, after joining me for brunch (Christmas sausage from Pleva's, a wonderful butcher shop up north, and crusty panfried Yukon Gold potatoes) and attempting a morning game of Scrabble, finally begged off and wandered back to bed.

It's been that kind of week.

It's also been a week of reevaluation -- what it is I'm supposed to be doing on this earth. I hate to sound all cosmic about it, but when the Universe dope-slaps you with a fright that makes you come face to face with your own mortality, and the sheer randomness of your life on this'd best sit up and take notice, I think.

Which means I'm giving notice. I'm quitting my job. It's killing me. And I don't want to die. I want to live -- a life, as Jesus put it, brimful and spilling over. And I don't want to further subject my partner to my residual frustration and resentment and what I suspect are psychosomatic physical consequences of spending eight hours a day in a place I've grown to hate.

A church friend of mine used to be a fellow public servant, a caseworker for severely mentally handicapped adults. I'd run into her once in awhile in town, multiple clients in tow. Then one day she quit. She got a Master Gardener certification and went to work for a landscaping company. In her words: "I love my job now. I can go to work in the morning and know I'm not going to be kicked or bitten by anyone."

And that is the truth of it. You can only be kicked and bitten so much.

My reluctance to make a change has largely revolved around maintaining my health insurance. Which is I think understandable, especially for someone my age. But one of the "aha" moments in my past week was anticipating going through surgery and radiology whatever else lay in store for me...and still being enslaved to my job. And what if, God forbid, the news was the worst? What if in the last months of my life, a time when I should be in the business of making my peace and being fully present to the people I love and living fully into each moment that was left to me, I had to squander what tiny bit was left of my life at this job?

That was my no mas moment, I think; when my resolve solidified.

Of course, conventional wisdom says that I am being utterly foolhardy in making this decision. I understand that; believe me, that thought is what has kept me where I've been for the last four years at least. But then again, conventional wisdom has also said things like "You can never go wrong investing in real estate."

I -- before my departure from my employment was a done deal in my head -- enrolled in an online webmaster program offered through our nearby university's off-campus learning program that I am looking forward to, especially since Fellow Traveler and I keep running into organizations needing help with their websites and willing to pay or barter for it. My pastor is absolutely delighted that I may have some more time to devote to lay ministry. I would like to spend some quality time helping our food cooperative, a lively and positive place inhabited by other people who don't give much of a fig about conventional wisdom, who nonetheless lead healthy, fulfilled and intriguing lives. I want to spend more time at home -- our home -- being a real partner, not just a tired, sad lodger who slouches through the door at 5:00 p.m. and slinks out again at 7:40 a.m.

I have some money from the family legacy and my savings that should tide me over as far as COBRA payments for awhile. Fellow Traveler says we can, and should, do this. I agree.

One more week.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thanks Be To God

My mammogram results are fine.

The doctor doesn't know what's causing my problem, but it appears to be a dermatological, not oncological, problem.

I am a puddle of relief right now. So I'm not going to talk much. But thank you all, so much, for your prayers and support.

This has been a real values-clarification experience for me. But more about that later, after I've recovered for all this.

Meet My New Facebook Friend!

No kidding. "Jesus Nazareth" has added me as a friend. (I should add that, my Lutheran theological underpinnings aside, after finding out about his Facebook presence from another blog I sought him out and asked him to "friend" me. Potato, po-tah-to; we know what's really going on.)

Seriously: When I first read about this mysterious entity (whose profile can be found here , I suspected it might be the snarky work of a "cultured despiser of religion"; or some "soul-winning" fundamentalist with a particularly acute hubris problem; or an author gathering material for a quirky future bestseller; or just a merry prankster not terribly concerned about the ramifications of the Second Commandment.

But...I like this JC. He posts, and collects from friends, lovely Jesusian artwork. He has a rather droll sense of humor. He's a fan of, among other people and things, dogs, cats, babies, Notre Dame, Greenland, Stan Musial, "Family Guy," Yemen, Avril Lavigne and the Detroit Tigers. And I detect at least a hint of deeper theological stuff going on when he shares moments like "Jesus is brushing his teeth"..."Jesus is eating toast"..."Jesus is hiding with a family in Gaza"..."Jesus is walking with soldiers in Israel."

I gave Jesus a shout-out this morning and asked him to think of me today. He said he would.

Another Reason to Love Fellow Traveler

And of course all this drama is happening the week I'm supposed to be out of Cold Comfort Cottage.

We have been making valiant attempts to get things packed or pitched over the past two weeks...but we simply get exhausted, or have other life responsibilities that have kept us from working on the project every night. And, especially when it came to the furniture, we couldn't imagine three of us -- FT, our friend and myself -- schlepping everything into the U-Haul in one day, especially if I have a biopsy today.

So in a stroke of brilliance FT thought of our lawn and snow guys. They have a lawncare business down the street. Despite all the snow we've gotten, and so early, the poor economy has taken a toll on their winter snowplowing clientele; work's been slow for them. So FT called them: This isn't really in your area of expertise, but...can you help us move?

So we now have two burly young lads to do all the heavy lifting for us. They're thrilled to get the work.

I've just been so distracted, I wouldn't have thought of these guys.

That is why we have partners in this life: Like the song says, sometimes one partner pulls the wagon, and sometimes that partner is the one who needs to climb in and be pulled. I wish people who would deny us the rights afforded married couples could somehow understand, in the fog of their moral indignity, that we already share the responsibilities of people committed to one another for the long haul.


As in surgical consult day. 2:30 pm, EST.

I took the entire day off...I was going to do some proofreading/editing work on a website consulting job that Fellow Traveler has been working on, on the barter system, for a local business...but I just couldn't concentrate this morning, so I sent her off to that office for an hour or two while I stay home. I'm somewhere between angst and residual shock from last Friday...all I want to do is crawl under a comforter until I have to get dressed for my appointment.

Actually, I can't do that because at this moment Cassie and Gertie are both jammed next to me, their chins pressed into my thigh, looking up at me with such sweet doggie faces. Why are you home, Auh-wuh? Why are you still in your nightgown? I can't tell if they're picking up on my stress or if they're just cold.

I don't want to think about this afternoon at all -- none of the possible scenarios, even the good ones. I don't want to incorrectly anticipate the worst news or incorrectly hang on to the best news.

I don't want to be sick. I don't want to be operated on. I don't want to be in pain. I don't want to be burdensome. I don't want our imminent plans for my cutting back on work, and studying, and freelancing, and doing more with my lay ministry, to be interrupted. Why is this all happening now?

I know; existential question; why ask why; read Job.

At work I've had a few people be very kind and supportive to me; others kind of brush off the whole story because their own cancer scares turned out to be nothing (it's easy to be sanguine when it comes to someone else's body); other people who won't even look me in the eye or talk to me in other than a task-oriented way. On the other hand, my fellow church members, my friends in the greater Church in the world, and other friends and folks of good will, have been incredibly supportive.

And, in the meantime, a friend of Fellow Traveler's and mine just e-mailed us to share that her mom -- whom she'd just visited, whose birthday she'd just celebrated, just got similarly troubling news about a mass on her ovary, and is also scheduled for tests today.

Friday Five: Take Me, Baby, Or Leave Me

The RevGalBlogPals, in the spirit of Rent's "Take Me, Baby, Or Leave Me," challenge readers today to list five "take me or leave me" facts about themselves.

Alrighty then! Here goes:

1. I'm a big-boned gal, short and stocky; a workhorse, not a show horse. Take me, baby, or leave me.

2. I am not as smart as people think I am or even as I sometimes think I am. Take me, baby, or leave me.

3. I am constitutionally unable to organize -- not people; not stuff; not even my own thoughts half the time. Take me, baby, or leave me.

4. I am actually a lot funnier -- humorous funny, I mean -- than people assume I am when they first meet me. Take me, baby, or leave me.

5. I am actually a lot more emotional, for better or worse, than people assume I am when they first meet me. Take me, baby or leave me.

Bonus point: I snore. Loudly. Everyone all together now: Take me, baby, or leave me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


We spent not quite two hours at Cold Comfort Cottage tonight continuing to pack and pitch. The new owners have already been busy ripping out carpeting and getting ready to paint. They also, despite our explaining our available timetable to them, took it upon themselves to pack up some of my stuff -- basically to put it in trash bags and load it up in the middle of the dining room.

We were pretty annoyed. It felt like being evicted, even though I was told we'd have all the time we need to get my belongings out. And, interestingly -- we found out that the buyers are actually going to use the house as a rental instead of using it themselves, as they'd told me they were going to do. There goes the neighborhood; good thing we're leaving.

Our friend Mel is going to help us finish up the job this weekend. We're also working our network to maybe find a burly teen or two to help load the furniture.

I'm having unpleasant flashbacks to all my college-era moves. I hate this. And if I have a biopsy Friday, and am rendered worthless in lifting, I'm going to hate it more.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Boob Place

I spent some quality time yesterday at our regional women's health clinic, which I'll call The Boob Place.

The world should be more like The Boob Place -- clean, quiet, aesthetically calming, ambient music in the background. It's a pity that the other women in the waiting room, and myself, were there for mostly troubling reasons.

My intake nurse was an older woman who exuded calm and competency. When I began stressing a little, she patted my hand and reassured me that there were all sorts of scenarios possible.

That made me feel better...until, sitting in the waiting room before my mammogram, I heard her tell one of my fellow patients, "Know that I will be thinking about you this week," and realizing that The Boob Place is a pretty serious place to be.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An Explanation of God

One of my fellow lay ministry graduates sent this today. It's supposedly by a little kid named Danny in Chula Vista, CA. I thought it was cute.


'One of God's main jobs is making people. He makes them to replace the ones that die, so there will be enough people to take care of things onearth. He doesn't make grownups, just babies. I think because they are smaller and easier to make. That way H e doesn't have to take up His valuable time teaching them to talk and walk. He can just leave that to
Mothers and Fathers.'

'God's second most important job is listening to prayers. An awful lot of this goes on, since some people, like Preachers and things, pray at times beside bedtime. God doesn't have time to listen to the radio or TV because of this. Because He hears everything, there must be a terrible lot of noise in His ears, unless He has thought of a way to turn it off.'

'God sees everything and hears everything and is everywhere which keeps Him pretty busy. So you shouldn't go wasting His time by going over your Mom and Dad's head asking for something they said you couldn't have.'

'Atheists are people who don't believe in God. I don't think there are any in Chula Vista. At least there aren't any who come to our church.'

'Jesus is God's Son. He used to do all the hard work, like walking onnwater and performing miracles and trying to teach the people who didn't want to learn about God. They finally got tired of Him preaching to them and they crucified Him But He was good and kind, like His Father, and He told His Father that they didn't know what they were doing and to forgive them and God said O.K.'

'His dad (God) appreciated everything that He had done and all His hard work on earth so He told him He didn't have to go out on the road anymore. He could stay in Heaven. So He did. And now He helps his Dad out by listening to prayers and seeing things which are important for God to take care of and which ones He can take care of Himself without having to bother God. Like a secretary, only more important.'

'You can pray anytime you want and They are sure to help you because They got it worked out so one of Them is on duty all the time.'

'You should always go to church on Sunday because it makes God happy, and if there's anybody you want to make happy, it's God!

Don't skip church to do something you think will be more fun like going to the beach. This is wrong. And besides the sun doesn't come out at the beach until noon anyway.'

'If you don't believe in God, besides being an atheist, you will be very lonely, because your parents can't go everywhere with you, like to camp, but God can. It is good to know He's around you when you're scared, in the dark or when you can't swim and you get thrown into real deep water by big kids.'

' shouldn't just always think of what God can do for you. I figure God put me here and He can take me back anytime He pleases.

And...that's why I believe in God.'

Living in the Moment

My Buddhist friends have good advice for me about living in the moment: "Breathe in; breathe out."

That's pretty much what I've been doing today: playing Scrabble; listening to Sirius Coffeehouse; shooting nefarious Bulbins and Keese on the Wii. I've been cooking, off on and on; we had something called Christmas sausage in the freezer, from a trip to Pleva's Meats in Cedar this fall, and we wanted to see what this was, so we had it for breakfast with home fries. (For any interested persons: Christmas sausage came in thin little toothpicked coils. It is very lean, mild and flecked with unidentifiable herbs, although we could perhaps pick out some faint anise or fennel flavor.) For dinner I chopped up a motley assortment of root vegetables from our excursion to Ann Arbor alternative grocery stores, browned some lamb shanks, threw everything in a casserole with wine and herbs and am braising it now.

I have been enjoying the smallest, homiest things: The way little Gertie sidles up and touches me with her paw, all day long -- "Hey." The way FT curls her toes when she's executing Scrabble strategy. The colors of the vegetables -- who knew, for instance, that you could grow a red turnip with radiating pink insides? REM harmonizing on "Fall on Me"; there's a point at which they all kind of hit their mark vocally, and it flows like honey, and you think, Yeah.

Breast Meat

I remember, many years ago, reading a cartoon in which one of the regular characters underwent a mastectomy. Another character, looking suspiciously down at her own breasts, exclaimed, "Sometimes these things seem like loaded weapons."

I'm finding myself similarly alienated from my breasts. They are" things," to me, right now. I know that some women feel real grief over losing what they feel to be primary signifiers of their femininity...but right now, looking down at my chest, I see the enemy. If my consult next week doesn't go well, my reaction is going to be, Get them both OFF me.

Staying Home

I woke up late this morning -- too late not to make going to church a hurried stressfest. And, frankly, I just don't feel up to discussing my health face-to-face with my church friends today. Which is odd because so many women in my church have had or are now fighting breast cancer that I have a built-in support group right there.

But I'm just not ready for that today. I feel like I'd rather save my emotional capital for next week, when I have a better idea of what's going on, if that makes any sense.

I also spent some tossy-turny time last night struggling with The Accuser. On one of my frequented online discussion forums folks have been talking about how we contemporary Lutherans tend to want to make our theology warm and cuddly and unchallenging for the masses, and how that runs up against stuff like the more difficult articles of the Creed, or the "exorcism" portion of the baptismal liturgy. But as my pastor is wont to point out, the devil becomes real for us in the voice of The Accuser: that hissing, 2:00 a.m. litany of everything we've ever done wrong, are doing wrong and will do wrong, designed to drive us to despair.

In my case The Accuser was gleefully gathering evidence for my lack of good self-care over the years and in the last few weeks: This is what you get for not losing weight. And why didn't you check out that rash as soon as you noticed it? Why did you wait a month? Why did you take hormones for your irregular periods? -- you knew you were perimenopausal and did it anyway. Happy now? You know that people who internalize their anger and frustration are at a higher risk for cancer, don't you? But you haven't done anything about that, have you? Why didn't you eat more vegetables? Why did you eat so much animal fat? You're natural selection in action. You screw up, you pay the price. And so will everyone around you -- because you screwed up. This is all your fault. You brought this upon yourself.

The more I tried arguing with this stuff, the worse it got. I imagined my doctor and her nurse dressed in somber Euro judicial robes, frowning at me while pronouncing the words risk factors.

This went around and around and around. So I finally pulled some ammo out of my meager spiritual arsenal: the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I know my Orthodox friends place great stock in its efficacy -- I once read one Orthodox commentary advising that one use it judiciously, for that reason. I don't want to delve into the metaphysics of it all, but I do know that when The Accuser comes to call it's often like a spiritual rubber band, snapping me out of that cycle of negative rumination.

No bursts of white light. No voice of God telling me that everything would be okay. But The Accuser stopped.

All of which is to say, I woke up very tired this morning, and disinclined to be the object of attention at church. We're probably going out for brunch, then doing some packing at the other house, then coming home for either a funny movie or a therapeutic game of Link's Crossbow.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Late-Again Friday Five

I skipped the Friday Five, for obvious reasons, yesterday. But since pancakes are one of my favorite foods, I couldn't leave it alone. So here goes:

1. Scratch or mix? Buttermilk or plain?
Yes and yes. I have a family pancake recipe that calls for an entire tablespoon of baking powder, that makes incredibly yummy, cakey pancakes. Those, potato pancakes and buckwheat pancakes are my favorites. But every once in awhile Bisquick pancakes hit the spot. Not institutional diner pancakes, mind you -- Bisquick pancakes. The flavor and texture (the latter achieved by not overcooking) are just good.

2. Pure and simple, or with additions cooked in?
Pure and simple. I don't like crunchy/chewy/lumpy stuff in my pancakes.

3. For breakfast or for dinner?
Yes. (Much to the distress of Fellow Traveler, who maintains that breakfast foods are breakfast foods for a reason. Which is also why she doesn't care for cold-pizza breakfasts or omelet suppers.)

4. Preferred syrup or other topping? How about the best side dish?
Pure maple syrup, hands down. And while I don't really need a side with hotcakes, if I'm really hungry sausage patties or a bit of ham works for me.

5. Favorite pancake restaurant?
Again, much to FT's chagrin, I love IHOP. But I also enjoy a little divey place called Helen's Restaurant in downtown Remus, Michigan. This has been a favorite pre-Wheatland-Festival breakfast stop of mine for years. Their buckwheat pancakes rock -- fluffy and tender.

Prime Time Drama

Earlier this week, after returning home from a few hours of packing/tossing at Cold Comfort Cottage, Fellow Traveler and I consoled one another with the thought, "After this weekend we'll be over this drama. And how nice that will be."

Hours later I was lying on an examining table, in the middle of what I'd assumed would be a fairly routine annual exam, being told by the doctor that I needed a mammogram and a consult with a surgeon. Because the annoying itchy spot on my breast that I'd chalked up to being bitten by some unseen critter -- one that had left a similarly irritated spot on my leg around the same time -- may well be cancer.

So much for the no drama thing.

I drove back to my office in a fog, packed up my computer and came home. Fellow Traveler wasn't home; and to make matters worse, she'd left her cell phone at the Cottage. I didn't see the car near the local business where she was heading that morning. I drove back home; decided to drive back to the cottage. En route I saw her approaching; I flashed my lights and pointed north. She told me later that at first she was totally confused by my presence in town at midday, but when she saw my ashen face she knew something was wrong.

FT is not a stranger to this type of news; 30-some years ago, when she had her younger son, she was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo treatment while caring for a newborn and a toddler. So I sobbed into her shoulder for awhile. Then we picked the dogs up from their grooming appointment and all went home. And the humans played online Scrabble and Scramble while the shorn canines skittered around in the back yard. I was exhausted, and asleep by 7:00 p.m.

Later on that night I tossed and turned awhile, trying to process all of this. I finally dozed off and had a strangely light, amusing dream that made me chuckle when I woke up, until I remembered my exam. Then the thought occurred to me: Find your team.

I have learned to honor my 2:00 a.m. intuitions. So I'm gathering my team. I'm calling it the E Team, in honor of Fellow Traveler's and my first names. It needs healers and pray-ers, and joke tellers and encouragers, and cancer veterans and information-gatherers, and quiet listeners. Everyone's on the field; no one gets benched.

Please be on my team, in the weeks to come.

So much for the post-Christmas no-drama.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Better-Late-Than-Never Friday Five

I missed the Friday Prayer Pals post...missed the Friday Five...missed the Preacher Party. Yikes...where've I been the last week?

Oh, well...better late than never. So here are my Friday, now Sunday, Five:

First list five things that you remember/ treasure from 2008:
1. Our trip to New York City and Thanksgiving with The Kids.

2. Our vacations in the Leelanau, and stays at the Sleeping Bear Bed and Breakfast. We've had marvelous times there -- even in the middle of a howling blizzard.

3. Our adventure trips involving Aunt Helen and Aunt Alice.

4. Our adopting Miss Gertie into the family -- well worth the initial anxiety and property damage. She is a sweet, loving dog, and her ongoing happiness with life -- her daily attitude of "WOW!" -- is inspiring.

5. The Big Move.

Then list five things that you are looking forward to in 2009:
1. Slowly and lovingly repairing the damage to mind, body and spirit that happens when you're in an unhappy organizational situation day after day, with every morning feeling like a walk down the plank.

2. Learning some new stuff -- webmastery; Spanish.

3. Getting our new veggie and herb gardens established.

4. Fellow Traveler doing some continuing education of her own -- in her case, learning how to make stained glass. A friend of ours is a talented newbie in this art, and loves it.

5. A new lack of anxiety over the condition/upkeep/expense of Cold Comfort Cottage -- which I may or may not have mentioned here has been sold to the neighbors, who evidently had their eye on the property for some time. In this terrible housing market, getting an unsolicited, reasonable offer for the place was as close to a miracle as I could imagine. I will miss the front porch...and, really, that's about it. It wasn't my childhood home, and it's never really felt like much more than a way station throughout my sojourn there. So I wish the new owners well.

No More Cheese...But a Little Whine

So, anyway, it was Saturday afternoon and we were at Whole Foods in Ann Arbor, provisioning for the next six months: all the ethnic foods, organic vegetable exotica and other stuff we can't find up here. Being cheapskates as well as foodies, one of our favorite features of Whole Foods is the small "no-commitment" bin of tag-end cheesy bits from elsewhere in the cheese case. As usual, this did not disappoint. I selected a dib of soft Brie-like sheep's milk cheese from France; a dab of artisanal cheddar; a few tiny wedges of cheeses with names I wouldn't attempt to spell or pronounce. Life was good.

We finished up our shopping there and moved on to Trader Joe's down the street. About halfway through this task, though, a "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!" premonition began nagging at my consciousness.

"We'd better check on the dogs," I said. Because, you see, we'd taken Cassie and Gertie along with us on this trip. And they were now in our vehicle alone with several bulging bags of groceries.

FT volunteered to go back to the Jeep while I checked out. As I pushed the shopping cart out the door I saw the expression on her face, sitting there in the driver's seat, and knew that something was amiss.

"I have good news and bad news," I was informed. "The good news is that Gertie has very good taste in food. The bad news is that half your cheese is gone. Oh -- and she also ate a bag of pita chips with the cheese."

Evidently FT arrived at the Jeep to find young Gertrude in the back, happily snarfing down a wedge of cheese. When Gertie looked up to meet FT's eyes, she dropped the cheese and sheepishly scampered back to the front seat. Further investigation found other cheese samples cherry-picked out of the grocery bag and sucked out of their wrappers. Meanwhile, Cassie was impassively staring out the window at passersby: I know nothing.

I'm rather surprised Gertie didn't also open up a nice oaky chard or spicy shiraz to go with her appetizers.

Sometimes a dog can be too damned smart.

Did You Hear -- The Word Is Love

I called today's service The Little Service That Could. Because despite an ice storm that coated most of mid-Michigan with a treacherous glaze, and kept us white-knuckle tense all the way to church, not quite 30 brave souls showed up for worship, with me presiding as lay minister for the day and a lay ministry colleague assisting.

At first, though, it was just FT, our sacristy helper and myself. What if no one else showed up? I joked that we'd just pass the paten and wine jug around between the three of us; FT suggested that she and our third party just read and initial the copy of my sermon and call it a day. Then a few more people showed up. We figured we'd run through a truncated, music-less liturgy and common-cup Eucharist; one of those loosey-goosey retreat-style worship services. (The fact that the sound room/tat closet was locked, and no one had a key, would add to the informal feel.)

Finally we got a quorum, and then a few more. The organist arrived with a key to the sound room, and a couple of our other frequent flyers helped get things together for the morning. We got out more Communion ware. My assisting minister slid in at the last minute.

It went pretty well despite the general seat-of-the-pants feel of the morning, and the knowledge that the roads and our vehicles were getting a fresh coat of ice even as we worshipped.

We'd chosen the Christmas 2 texts for the day. Here is my sermon:

I bring you grace and peace, this second Sunday of the Christmas season, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. We pray, sanctify us in the truth, o Lord; for your Word to us is truth. Amen.

On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of God becoming one of us. We heard about the who and the where and the when and the what: Mary and Joseph, an affianced couple who were – scandalously, in that time and place – expecting a baby. We heard about Caesar Augustus, back in Rome, whose census of the Roman empire brought this beleaguered little family, along with many other families, to the town of Bethlehem to be counted.

We heard about the birth of God With Us – in a stable; in the ancient equivalent of a parking garage; because that was the only place left to go when Mary went into labor. We heard about the shepherds, those first outsiders to hear the good news of the coming of the Messiah – the riff-raff of their society; persons considered so marginal and incapable of leading pious lives that their occupation as shepherds rendered them ritually unclean. Who would be the modern-day equivalent of shepherds, do you think? Maybe bag ladies and gentlemen; or carnies; or migrant workers.

And for those of you who read ahead in Scripture, you heard about the “wise men from the East” – pagan astrologers to whom God had nonetheless somehow communicated the message that something huge, something earth-changing, was happening in Palestine; and who eventually found Mary and Joseph and child; who “got” it – who got that this little child in humble circumstances was someone and something completely different; and who bowed down and worshipped in the face of this mystery. Imagine a hotline“psychic friend” or a coworker of mine when I lived up north who believed in fairies and auras and used to offer corn pollen to the four winds to help her find her lost car keys – imagine folks like that, outside the scope of the people we think are theologically correct or even well connected to reality, being the ones whom God seeks out first to learn about the God With Us.

So, anyway…that’s the story. We hear it every year. Perhaps, like Mary, we ponder these events in our hearts on an ongoing basis. Or perhaps, if you’re more like me, you tend to wrap up the Christmas story in tissue paper with your crèche and your ornaments and stick the box in the attic for another year.

But the Gospel of John is not going to let us do that. The Gospel of John wants us to stick with this story of God’s Incarnation, God’s entering into our human existence. It assumes we know the when and who and what and where. It is now going to tell us the WHY. And that “why” is so important, so essential to our understanding of ourselves, that the Gospel begins – not a coincidence – the very same words as the Genesis story of the creation of the world: In the beginning.
And the WHY we hear is…love.

Love – the love of God that brought everything into existence and that sustains creation on an ongoing basis; the love between the Persons of the Godhead; that love that yearns to enlighten us in our ignorance and foolishness and confusion and inability to get things right; that love was channeled right into the midst of our earthly existence as a little baby; as one of us. Not because of who any of us are or what any of us did, as the text points out; but because of who God is, and what God has chosen to do on our behalf, out of love.

I think sometimes we hear the Christmas story so often that we no longer really hear it; it’s like pleasant holiday background music that doesn’t shock us or move us. But what our Gospel text is telling us today is something so shocking, so amazing, so unbelieveable – that the God who is bigger and more powerful and more “other” and simply more than we can possibly comprehend, would choose, out of love, to reveal self to us most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament we certainly find a God who seeks relationship with humanity; who communicates in various ways with humanity; but in John’s Gospel, God’s revealing face to us has real skin on it; real bones and flesh and nerve endings underneath it; is someone we can place in a particular place and time in history, someone whose experiences and actions we can relate to, human to human.

In the Christian tradition in Ireland they speak of someone being a “soul friend.” A soul friend might be a formal confessor or spiritual director in the church…but more often than not it’s just a very good, very special friend who keeps good company with you in your spiritual walk – a friend with whom you can be completely honest and transparent; a friend who seems to have a special window into your own experience and spiritual life, who will laugh with you and cry with you and give you a nudge or a kick in the pants when you need it. A soul friend helps grow your soul; and that’s a great thing to have, isn’t it.

And the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ – God’s Logos, God’s revealed self to us – is just that; our soul friend. The Word of God who was God and with God from the beginning, who brought the very cosmos into being, is also one who knows us, lovingly and intimately, better than we know ourselves. Our thoughts and experiences and frustrations and crises as members of the human family are not unknown or unfelt by this God with a human face, born into a human family. Have you ever been short of life’s resources? Jesus was. Have you ever been in trouble with an authority figure? Jesus was. Have you ever had friends or family misunderstand or even betray you? Jesus did. Have you ever been in physical or emotional pain that seemed to squeeze the life right out of you? Jesus was. Have you ever wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” Jesus did. Why? Because of God’s love. Because of God’s desire to be soul friend to each of us.

Oddly enough, on this 2nd Sunday of Christmas we also hear about…John the Baptist. As the text says, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” At the time our Gospel was written, there was still a remnant of John’s disciples who hadn’t bought into the idea that Jesus, not John the Baptist, was God’s Messiah; it’s thought that this, among others, is a comment directed toward members of that sect. But there’s something else here. Note that the God of the universe, this God who loves us and who will do anything to enlighten our darkness with the gift of divine friendship and guidance, not only comes to us in a dramatic, direct way in the person of Jesus, but also uses other human beings as arrows who point to Christ; who point to the light. As children of God…siblings of Jesus...heirs of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, as Scripture puts it…we, like John the Baptist, are also called to testify to the light, as we can; as circumstances give us the opportunity. Sometimes that testimony may be in words; sometimes it may be in actions…sometimes it may be something as simple as a loving, grace-ful steadfast presence in someone’s life. St. Francis of Assisi once advised his hearers to “Preach Christ always – use words if necessary.”

For those of us at the Christmas Eve service – remember when we all lit our candles and held up the flames. That’s our great duty and delight – to bring the light of Christ, even in what feels like a tiny flicker, to the dark places around us.
Our Gospel lesson reminds us that in Jesus Christ we have all received “grace upon grace.” We have received the truth of God’s abiding presence and love. We have received the greatest, best soul friend of all – a God whose face we can see in Jesus’. We have received the privilege of helping bear the light of God’s loving face to all the world. What gifts these are. So I wish you, this morning, yet again – Merry Christmas – today, and tomorrow, and always.

And now may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The salt truck was making its way down the road as we emerged from church. We passed it on the way to the local diner for some brunch. Then we carefully -- 30 miles an hour carefully -- made our way back home to crash. (Ourselves -- not our vehicle.)

It was a pretty good Sunday, all things considered.

Family Addition

Yesterday we took Fellow Traveler's Aunt Helen down to the Detroit area for a visit with her sister Alice while we went over to Ann Arbor for a couple of hours to buy provisions at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. Helen and Alice are the two delightful ladies we drove to Cabela's in Dundee back before Christmas, whose hilarious conversations I blogged about then; FT tries to get them together about once a month.

To our surprise, when we returned to take Helen home, Alice presented us with two Christmas gift bags. "Open these when you get home," she instructed us.

After we got home and unpacked we turned our attention to these Christmas surprises.

On my gift tag was a little note: "CAN I BE YOUR AUNT ALICE TOO?"

Made me a little sappy. Still does today.