Friday, December 31, 2010

A "Looking Backward, Moving Forward" Friday Five

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five asks us to name some blessings we've received in the past year while also expressing some hopes for the year to come. I can do that. So here they are.

Blessing #1: Miss Ruby. While technically she's a blessing from 2009 -- this has been the year to watch her grow from a tiny babe in arms, all potential, to a very smart, active little girl with a unique -- and dare I say big -- personality. One of her little cousins recently confided to Son #2, "I just don't know what we'd do without our Ruby."

Blessing #2: Chica.  It still hurts to think about Gertie and the day she died -- I honestly feel a brief resurgence of sweaty-palm panic whenever I pass the spot on the highway where the accident happened. We truly did not think we'd ever have another dog. But Chica, our little Heinz 57 mutt from the pound, has turned out to be a wonderful companion, with a personality all her own -- alternately sweet and spicy, as befitting her name. Mollie the cat, a veteran of many dogs over the years, still isn't quite sure what to make of this one. But we love her lots.

Blessing #3: The Stutzman Family. This year we got to know a local Amish woman, Mary, a widow with six children still at home, who sells baskets and soap in her backyard shop and in local Amish stores. Over the past year we've gone from casual visitors to her store to "Sit down and have some coffee" friends; which to me is a gift. And we've also grown to love Mary's kids, who are just a joy to be around -- who are polite and respectful to adults, and kind and helpful to one another, while maintaining free spirits and an impish sense of fun. I wish that some of our neighbors who think of the Amish in stereotypes -- usually negative -- could have the experiences we do with this family.

Blessing #4: A New Doctor.  It took me several months of Internet research -- but I finally found a primary care physician within reasonable driving distance who has an interest in integrative medicine and who treats me like a human being rather than a set of billable procedures to be squeezed in between pharmaceutical reps. Not that I am bitter or anything.

Blessing #5: Fellow Traveler. Yes, I am being sappy and cornball and obvious here...but especially this year, after observing and experiencing some major interpersonal pathology in other people's relationships, I am more than ever grateful to be traveling on the same life path with my Fellow Traveler.

Bonus Blessing:  Our Wii Fit. Yes, I'm serious. Even though I haven't been on it for a month due to travel and Christmas preparation and the fact that our heavily laden Christmas tree is too close to the television for me to be bouncing around on the board. This is one of the only exercise regimens I've ever been able to stay on for an extended period of time. When the tree goes down...the Wii comes back on.

On to wishes for the new year:

Wish #1:  Fellow Traveler's rheumatoid-arthritis-related TMJ became so bad this past year that something had to be now, after a long and often frustrating diagnostic process through the VA system, she's been cleared for outsourced surgery. We identified some oral surgeons in our general area of the state who seem to have expertise in jaw issues and are getting a consult from them. My wish is that this surgery -- which may wind up being anything from trying to create an artificial cushion in the RA-ravaged joint space to a titanium joint replacement, any option involving some delicate surgical work -- be a success so that FT can be free of the intense daily pain she suffers.

Wish #2:  Now that I have a doctor who suits me, it's time to deal with my health insurance. I have been arguing with Blue Cross for months now about whether or not I'm an actual subscriber (this despite my producing bank records of my ongoing automatic premium payments, and their regular delivery of the company magazine); the company changed my card number without my knowledge, and now refuses to send me a new card. I've been paying my medical costs out of pocket, then forwarding the bills to my insurance agent -- so far with no response from Blue Cross. In the last month I've had not one but two suggestions (one generated by a random discussion between two retirees we overheard in a restaurant when we were in California) that another Large Health Insurance Company is much easier to work with. So -- even though I grew up in a family atmosphere where Blue Cross was only a few pegs lower than God on a scale of life necessity and trustworthiness -- it may be time to make a change.

Wish #3:  This is a perpetual wish on my part, but...I'd like to improve the organization of our household, my personal items and, perhaps most importantly of all, my time. We've actually made strides in this area in the past year; but sometimes I am still overwhelmed by "stuff" and by a kind of randomness (often enabled by yours truly)  that feels like chaos. I really want to find that golden mean between Stepford Wife and Hoarders.

Wish #4: Having begun a successful transition from straggly shrubbery to perennials around our gazebo, I wish to keep that horticultural success going with a new and improved herb garden (thwarted last year by issues with our plumbing that necessitated digging up what used to be my herb bed) and a new flower garden along our front garage. This last project was actually suggested by the non-gardening FT, out of the blue: "Why don't we dig a strip along the side of the garage and plant flowers there?" Who am I to argue with this? (FT's sudden interest in flowers may be a function of her desire to keep bees, which I affirmed on Christmas by giving her an entire bee hive -- sans bees -- and newbie beekeeper equipment.)

Wish #5: Another standing item on my New Year wish list: I want to learn something new this year. I'm not too choosy about what that is. Practical skills (like piecrust making, perhaps?) are always good; or I could really live in the leap and take on some intellectual task that's so far stymied me (calculus? euchre?).

Bonus Wish: This has been a wish of mine for some time -- also, frankly, something of a source of guilt and stress: I want to begin blogging regularly again. One of the reasons I stopped was because I felt that my blogging was beginning to direct my life, instead of my life informing my blogging; sort of like those reality TV shows where the reality has given way to scripts and mugging for the camera. I think I'm at a good place to begin again.

Friday, December 03, 2010

A Festive Friday Five

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five focuses on the things that really make Christmas for us. Here's my list:

1. Our Advent wreath and calendar. Even though we're not always faithful in lighting the wreath candles, even though we sometimes have to play catchup for a few days with the calendar...we do find a lot of value in observing this season before Christmas in a real, tangible way. It feels pleasingly countercultural; it keeps Christmas, Inc. at bay at our house.

2. Trimming the tree. Or, in our case, trees, since we have two of them. I just love doing this. At our house we wait until just before Christmas Eve; we put on Christmas music, have some eggnog or Christmas tea, and make an event of it.

3. Baking cookies. We do this mostly for export...but it's still fun. And I still have to restrain myself from a repeat of the year in which I made 18 different kinds of cookies.

4. Anonymous gifting. We usually adopt a child or vulnerable adult from our community "giving tree." Oftentimes the requests are so modest that they're almost heartbreaking -- like the child whose card we took one year, who asked for food for her family. "Meet and exceed expectations" is our guideline for giving.

5. The Christmas Eve service. This year it will be more special because I will be assisting at it for the first time. We have an old-fashioned candlelight service with the Eucharist; we hear the Story once again; we sing familiar hymns. Afterward we come home and have a little pre-Christmas-day nosh of Christmas delectables, and exchange our gifts. Good times.

Bonus: What is one thing that really DOESN'T make your Christmas? Definitely the shopping and spending frenzy. We find gifts for our family all year long, so by the time the stores start bringing out the Christmas merchandise we've already finished buying presents, so we've effectively disconnected from most of the Christmas craziness. When I was working, the thing that used to get me the most were the obligatory (de facto, even when the bosses assure staff that they can opt out  if they wish) workplace gift exchanges. My church's annual yard sale was enriched for many years by the cast-off candles and other assorted unwanted tschotchkes I'd have to drag home from Christmas parties. The best workplace Christmas gift exchanges I've ever participated in either involved white-elephant gifts or a very low cost ceiling -- say $5 -- that really challenged givers' creativity and knowledge of their giftee.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Blogging Advent

Hey -- I've started a new Advent blog. Check it out here .

Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Five: "American Pie" Edition

I am simultaneously feeling holidayed out and amped up for a very busy Advent month that also includes a cross-country I was ready for a fun RevGalBlogPal Friday Five. And we have one: All About Pie.

1)Are pies an important part of a holiday meal?
Absolutely. My mother was the best pie baker ever, and we always had pie for holidays and other special occasions. These days we tend to rely on our friend Dan the Amish baker for our pies, but we still crave them on special days.

2) Men prefer pie; women prefer cake. Discuss.
I think whoever came up with this idea was not from the crust-intensive Upper Midwest where the women like their pie just fine, thank you. I'm fond of gingerbread, and Fellow Traveler and I both like white cake on the rare occasions when we eat cake...but that's about it.

3) Cherries--do they belong in a pie?
I think they're fine in other people's pies, yes.

4) Meringue--if you have to choose, is it best on lemon or chocolate?
Again, yes. On rhubarb cream pie too.

5) In a chicken pie, what are the most compatible vegetables? Anything you don't like to find in a chicken pie?
If you ask Fellow Traveler, who was OD'd on frozen pot pies in her childhood, she'd say that chicken pie was not compatible with eating, period. Me, I don't mind savory pies; but if I'm going to eat a pot pie, chicken or otherwise, I want the peas in it to be bright and firm, not gray and mealy. Bad peas can really ruin a dish.

Bonus: What is the most unusual pie you have ever eaten? That would have to be concord grape juice pie, one of the specialties of our local Amish community. While most cookbook recipes for grape pie require a messy process of cooking whole grapes, then running them through a food mill and cooking down the residual juice, our Amish friends tell us they use their own canned grape juice and make a kind of transparent custard with it. However they make it, I like it and want to make it some day. 

Bonus bonus: What is the most unusual pie you haven't yet eaten? This Christmas, which we will be spending at home, I'd like to try my hand at making tortiere, the French Canadian spiced meat pie that's a tradition during the holidays. Fellow Traveler has hinted that, unlike pot pie, she might enjoy this very meaty, un-veggie-laden dish. I'm thinking of making little muffin-cup tortiere canapes; somethin' like that.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Friday Five: "Surprised by Joy" Edition

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five has a Thanksgiving theme, with a twist: What are five unexpected blessings we can be thankful for?
This is an interesting question for me, because I tend not to be too fond of surprises. I can be wound a little tightly, and sometimes I need to slowly warm up to new experiences. But, sometimes, they're good things. Here are a few.

1. Fellow Traveler. Five years ago I certainly never envisioned myself living in domestic tranquility with the love of my life. This has been a very good surprise.

2. A granddaughter. Ruby was a surprise all around; and both the nine months of this pregnancy and the past year have been jam-packed with baby-related changes in our lives, including her parents' wedding and move across the country; including my first experience taking care of a tiny child.. In two weeks were on our way to SoCal to visit The Kids in their new home; my first trip out West. But it's all good.

3. Chica. Fast-forwarding to this summer: When Gertie died this summer, I was pretty certain that we wouldn't share our lives with another dog. So was Fellow Traveler. Who knew that, two months ago, we'd find a compelling photo of a cute little canine on Petfinder, resolve to save her from the animal-shelter gas chamber, and come home with one of the sweetest dogs we've ever had the privilege of knowing? Chica -- who at this very moment is sitting on the sofa with me, recuperating from her Special Lady-Dog Operation -- is a gem; cuddly, friendly to all, smart and well-behaved.

4. The joy of not working. I have to admit -- when we decided as a household that we could get by fine on one income, I couldn't help the feeling that I was doing something very, very bad, and that the Universe was about to punish me. Chalk that up to a combination of familial work ethic, coming of age at a time when having a serious career was a hallmark of being a liberated, self-empowered woman, and feeling guilt over our many friends and neighbors who find themselves under- or unemployed these days.  Almost immediately I tried to justify this not working by studying for a new job instead; until I got real about my complete lack of interest in spending my days proofreading lines of HTML code. And then I foundered for awhile. It's only recently, maybe even in the past couple months, that I've been able to feel truly okay about a life that alternates domesticity with volunteerism. Will this be my status forever? Probably not. But when I engage the workplace again, it will be as someone whose work life is no longer based on fear and guilt and people-pleasing.

5. Living in mid-Michigan. Until recently I've always felt a dissatisfaction with living in this area; I always saw my future, and then our future, somewhere else -- the Leelanau area of northern Michigan, or perhaps even out East in Fellow Traveler's old stomping grounds. But in the last couple of years we've really planted some roots on this land in this place. While it's not obvious to a casual visitor, and frankly wasn't even obvious to me as a native -- there are real blessings in living here: the woods and waters and wildlife; the Amish community; the slower pace of life. We still travel; still enjoy exploring new places and going back to our favorite getaway areas; but we are thankful whenever, after such a trip, we find ourselves turning into our own driveway once again.

The Funniest Thing I've Read in a Long Time

If you have ever lived with a dog, you will laugh out loud at this:
Dogs Don't Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Snowed-In Friday Five

As we enter the waning weeks of autumn, with the first "sticking snow" just over the horizon (and perhaps some readers are already experiencing a white landscape),the  RevGalBlogPals Friday Five asks us to imagine our ideal snow day.

It feels odd responding to these questions during one of those misty Indian-summer November days when the temperature is expected to push 60 degrees -- I'm overlooking a lawn of green grass and an open pond -- but I know that in only a few weeks everything is going to change...

1. What is your favorite movie for watching when curled up under a wooly blanket?
Hard to say. I like classic movies; I like quirky movies. Probably, though, in the dead of winter, some northern European exploration of postmodern existential angst would not be my first choice of film. Or anything that an 18-year-old boy would watch. Or anything that a 5-year-old would watch. No; no movies that leave me wondering, "What in the hell was that?", or with the impulse to step in front of a train. No glorified video games/soft porn. No movies heavy on fart-and-belch humor, with protagonists who sound like the sort of smartass 10-year-old kids who need to be sent to military school in North Korea for a few years. about some screwball Thirties romantic comedy, or Hitchcock thriller, or interesting indie film with a real plot and characters I wouldn't mind knowing in real life.

2. Likewise, what book?
I'd love to say I can happily curl up with a volume of Tillich or Luther's Works or the writings of the early Church...but actually on a snowy day what I really like to read are cookbooks -- big cookbooks with big, colorful pictures -- or gardening books with big, colorful pictures. It's true; deep, deep down I'm shallow.

3. What foods do you tend to cook/eat when it gets cold?
At our house we enjoy soup on cold days. I usually also get a jones for childhood comfort food -- pork roasts and mashed potatoes and fricaseed chicken. (Don't tell my doctor.) I like baking bread on frosty days. And toasted cheese sandwiches -- another excellent snowy-day choice, especially with the soup.

4. What do you like to do if you get a "snow day" (or if you don't get snow days, what if you did)?
At our house it's much like the answers to 1, 2 and 3...although Fellow Traveler will usually suggest venturing out sometime post-blizzard to survey the landscape: "Why have a Jeep if you don't use it?" (I've not yet driven the Prius in a blizzard, but suspect that it really isn't a vehicle of choice for this sort of adventure.)
5. Do you like winter sports or outdoor activities, or are you more likely to be inside playing a board game? Do you have a favorite (indoors or out)?
If it's sunny and pleasant post-snowstorm, we sometimes like to snowshoe. We now have a dog who, so far, as demonstrated that we can't trust her for even a second outside without a leash, so the snowshoeing might be a challenge this winter. Board-game-wise, we enjoy dominoes and Scrabble.

Friday, November 05, 2010

New Kid on the Block

Yikes -- I just realized that I've been away from this blog for so long I've neglected to introduce what's left of my readership to a new member of our household.

Say hello to Chica!

After Gertie's accident we had pledged to never get another dog. Or at least to not get another dog for a long, long time. And for the first couple of months that seemed like a good idea. Even as we grieved for Gertie, we began to notice how much easier life was without a dog: bed-and-breakfast vacations without having to arrange for babysitting; no 2:00 a.m. potty runs outside; long-distance travel without the drama of having to manage a pooch's meals and bathroom breaks on the road.

Then one day we saw a lost dog, some sort of shaggy spaniel mix, on the busy highway running past our house. The dog, dragging a lead, shaking with fear, was trying to cross the road, dodging oncoming cars. I imagined a vehicle catching the lead on a tire. Fellow Traveler and I looked at one another in horror.

"I'm stopping," said FT. She pulled over.

But another vehicle, coming from the other direction, also stopped. The man who emerged from the pickup appeared to be an off-duty volunteer firefighter. He wove his way diagonally through the traffic and somehow managed to grab the stray's flapping lead. He quickly scooped up the frightened animal, wove through traffic again and placed the dog in the cab of his truck. We breathed a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later FT quietly admitted, "I could have taken that dog home. How about you?"

"Me too."

Several days later we caught one another scrolling down pages of dog photos on Petfinder.

Now it was only a matter of time.

A few mornings after this, I showed FT a photo of a dog at a dog pound in our area. FT returned to Petfinder to read about the dog. Then she said, "Hey -- look at the little brown dog at the same pound."

I'd missed this photo before. It showed a honey-colored beagle-sized dog with half-floppy ears, a cute little snubby nose and curly short tail. The information with the photo said that the dog was a female stray whose owner had never materialized, who had just come up for adoption.

"What do you think?"

"Let's call."

We did, and were advised to come quickly.

And that is how Chica wound up at our house.

It's always amazing to me how unique dogs' personalities are (something that people who keep their animals on chains in their backyard never learn); and Chica is no exception. From the moment we saw her in her cage, subdued but not in despair like the dogs next to her, alert and cautiously friendly as we approached, we knew she was going to be a different pet than Gertie.

For one thing -- this little girl used to have someone who cared about her and took good care of her. She's well socialized with people and other pets alike (more about that later). She's also been well fed. (And she has an obsession with finishing half-cups of coffee with cream -- we discovered this her first morning with us -- that leads us to suspect that this was a special treat for her in her former home.) She doesn't have an air of neediness or neurosis, like many rescue dogs. Her only vice we've found is her compulsion to run outside, and away, at the slightest opportunity; which may be why she wound up in a shelter in the first place.

Chica is a cuddler. She is a licker. She is a blanket burrower -- the only dog I've ever seen who wants to crawl completely under a blanket and stay there for an extended length of time. (Be careful where you sit in our house.) She makes silly little snuffly sounds when she's happy. She has an awesome four-foot vertical jump. She loves tummy tickles. She doesn't love car rides per se, but she does enjoy going places, especially places where she can meet interesting people and other animals. She eats nearly everything. She likes early bedtime, and gets a little peeved when forced to watch TV with the humans beyond about 9:30 pm.

Mollie the cat greeted the news of a new roommate with shock and two days of pouting; she would look at Chica, then look at us with frank reproach in her eyes: How could you two do this to me? By Day Three her attitude had mellowed to that of tired resignation: My God, I hate training the new ones. Now, a month and several well-aimed wallops of feline paw later, Mollie and Chica get along fairly well, although Chica -- who loves and is absolutely fascinated by Mollie -- still has a hard time restraining herself from trying to give Mollie full-face kisses. Mollie, for her part, has ended the hissing and spitting and bloodletting, and now maintains boundaries and discipline through clawless whacks, delivered with matter-of-fact impassivity. No; that is not appropriate; that is still not appropriate behavior...WHACK...

So what breed is Chica, exactly? We have decided that she is a chihuawhat -- part chihuahua, part who knows what.

Friday Five: "It Is Well With My Soul" Edition

This week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five touches on those little things in life that make us glad:

There are many perks in my life for which I give thanks and then there are some that make everything right in the world during the moment I am enjoying them. I'm wondering what a few of those things - five to be specific - are for you.

1. Morning coffee with my beloved: No matter how harried our day, we try to set aside a good chunk of early morning just to enjoy coffee and conversation with one another. This is also the place in the day where we tend to make household plans and discuss Deep Thoughts.

2. Sunday afternoon country drives. This has become a Sunday routine at our house; coming home from church, eating a light lunch, hopping back in the car and taking a leisurely excursion into Amish country. We enjoy the farmland and woods around us; and we also enjoy seeing our Amish neighbors in their Sunday best, taking part in their own Sunday worship and recreation.

3. Digging in the dirt. Even when it's in the context of digging up some very, very sad, stunted carrots (note to self -- add some sand to the carrot patch next year) or other less-than-successful garden projects, for me there's something about engaging with the earth that seems right and real.

4. Listening to some really good music.

5. Snowed-in days.  I love those mornings when we wake up to several inches of new snow; the schools are closed; everything is white and still outside. It's a great day to wrap oneself up in an afghan, pour some hot tea and read a good book, or watch a classic movie. (This is an attitude readjustment from my life as a commuter, when such snow days were a cause of much angst.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Five: Comfort Food, Media Course

Here in Michigan this week the weather turned for real. The leaves are for the most part off the trees; the autumn flowers are gone; we are officially now in furnace/afghan/comfort food weather. Which makes the RevGalBlogPal Friday Five challenge this week especially relevant:

Today's Friday Five is an opportunity for you to list five of your favorite go-to' movies/tv shows/books. You can use images, links, explanations or Netflix.

Comfort media, in other words.

I used to be one of those children who would read and re-read the same beloved book until the spine was broken and the pages were dogeared, or become so attached to a television show that when it was cancelled it felt as if my world had been turned upside down. Those days, I'm relieved to say, are over; although part of that "overness," I suspect, has less to do with my growing up and more to do with our increasingly fragmented attention in the wake of so many reading, viewing and listening choices. But there are still a few films and books and musical selections I turn to when I need the media equivalent of a warm, snuggly afghan:

1. Fried Green Tomatoes. One of the few chick flicks I enjoy and can watch over and over again. (How weird is it, though, to be reintroduced to Mary-Louise Parker in Weeds, a series I'm finding oddly addicting...pardon the pun.)
2. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Having seen what they're doing to the Charlie Brown franchise on ABC these days, I'm glad I have my own copy of the old and unimproved original.
3. Seed catalogs. These used to be a kind of visual Xanax for me in the dark of winter. Now, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, if I'm stressed out I can access them anytime, for a pleasant interlude of virtual garden planning.
4. Cookbooks.
5. James Taylor and Carol King. The early years, specifically. Destressing balm for the ears and psyche.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Five: Got Connections?

This week's RevGalBlogPals challenge asks us to examine our here goes:

1. Self: Who was your hero/heroine when you were about ten years old?
I have always taken a shine to heroic righters of wrongs: Robin Hood, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes. I also was moved by people who overcame obstacles -- disability, prejudice -- to become change agents in the world. Those were my heroes when I was that age.

2. Family: Who are you most like? Who is most like you?
I think dispositionally I borrow heavily from both parents. But the person most like me...I think my maternal grandmother, a lady I never got to know because she died when I was maybe two. She was very creative and bright; despite a rough start in life thanks to an evil stepmother right out of a Brothers Grimm story and a life of poverty and illness, she found joy and beauty in books, in music, in nature, in the domestic arts.

3. Friends: How do you stay in touch?
The much-maligned Facebook has been a real tool for me to find and keep in touch with old friends from various ages/stages in my life. A recent find was an old penpal I hadn't been in contact with in almost 30 years. Right now I'm trying to find friends from my "Cadillac years" (the Michigan city, not the automobile).

4. Neighborhood, community: What are ways you like to be involved?
Well, as frequent readers know, we get to know our neighbors by doing business with them. As two transplants from elsewhere, we don't have familial or social connections in our town, but we've gotten to know a lot of locals through hiring servicepeople or by patronizing farmstands and home-based businesses like our Amish friend Mary's basket and quilt shop.

5. Job/church: Do you see a need that will help in developing connections?
One of our weak areas at church is adult religious formation. I think that might someday provide a means for building relationships between people, but the trick is discerning what people need and want in terms of growing in discipleship. It's been our experience that floating new programs in a top-down way -- "We think people need X class, so here it is" -- is a sure way to fail. We've not yet discerned an organic desire for any kind of new group bubbling up within our congregation.

Bonus: Here is an interesting Pew study on social networking among older adults.

Wade in the Water...

I know. I should probably write about why I've been scarce in the blogosphere, what I did on my summer vacation and other questions my remaining readership may have.

And I will. But first I want to talk about this other thing:


Water has been on my mind the past few weeks as we ponder how to best care for our backyard pond, an "inherited" feature of our property that we want to keep healthy for the living things that live in and around it.

This is a big spring-fed pond, almost as wide as our lawn and maybe 10 feet deep, not a little kidney-shaped plastic pool. We don't have aeration or other mechanical devices to keep the water oxygenated; we don't do chemicals; we're basically relying on Mother Nature to keep the pond's ecosystem going.

And it has for the most part. It is home to two slider turtles and a multitude of fish, planted comets from the pet store as well as an assortment of tiny wild fish that have just shown up (probably as a result of fish eggs migrating via wildfowl feet.)

But a population explosion of fish this summer has got us worried about winterizing the pond; making sure that we don't experience winterkill, a condition that happens when toxic gases from decomposing plants become trapped under ice and suffocate pond life. This happened to us a couple of years ago; we were horrifed, come spring thaw, to find dead frogs and fish bobbing in the water.

So I've been doing a lot of reading. I've been raking dead leaves and vegetative muck out of the water as I've been able. I've been moderating our fishes' snacks to lower the ammonia content of the water for winter. I've been asking around on gardening forums about creative, non-electricity-using ways to keep open spots in the pond during the winter.

Keeping water clean is hard work, even on our relatively small scale.

Millions of human beings around the world have no access to clean drinking water or safe sanitation. That's why I, like a lot of other bloggers today, are inviting you to think about the importance of clean water to the whole world (and, as our Native American friends would say, to all our relations on this planet), to learn more about this issue and to, if you're able, lend some support to programs that help make water and sanitation available. On the right side of my blog you'll see a widget for the United Nations' clean water initiative; it's likely that you'll also find information about clean-water initiatives on the websites of your church bodies' aid/development agencies and other faith-based organizations.

As many of us are reminded everytime we celebrate a baptism in our churches, water is a good gift of God. We should give thanks for ours...and we can help others to receive this gift.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Who's on the Banner Committee?...

And here I thought that big-box churches had the edge on pop-culture fluency...
epic fail photo - Banner FAIL
see more EpicFail

Friday, September 03, 2010

Friday Five: Riding the Storm Out

In honor of the hurricane bearing down upon the Eastern Seaboard, the RevGalBlogPals offer a storm-themed Friday Five challenge this week:

1) What is the most common kind of storm in your neck of the woods?
Hmmm. That's tough to answer. I think I have to give the edge to summer thunderstorms, even though we've had some recent dry summers with nary a thunderboomer...I was just saying to Fellow Traveler the other day that this is the first summer in a long time when we've had some proper storms. Now, when I lived in northern Michigan, it seemed we had a blizzard once a week during the winter months -- blizzard as in can't-see-the-road, snow-up-to-the-axles blizzard. Not so much down here.

2) When was the last time you dealt with a significant power outage?
We have been pretty fortunate in this regard...I think last winter we had about a day and a half without power, but that's it. That's compared to the Great Ice Storm of 1970-something -- I was in high school at the time -- when a massive ice storm pounded the state for a couple of days, and we had no power for almost a week. Having an auxilliary wood stove in the basement made staying in the house tolerable...but I recall the joy of finally sinking into hot, soapy bathwater after a week of furtive teakettle-heated PTA hygiene in a refrigerator-cold bathroom.

3) Are you prepared for the next one?
One word: hotel.

4) What's the weather forecast where you are this weekend?
Ccccold for the first week of September (63 degrees F tomorrow); rain tomorrow, but sunny on Sunday and Monday.
5) How do you calm your personal storms?
For hurricane-level storms, the Jesus Prayer is one of my tried-and-true lifesavers; for less intense storms, chocolate or oaked chardonnay or some mindless television all work well.

Bonus: A little Lena Horne...

...a little Jim Morrison...

...and some REO:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Friday Five: Dorm, Eh, Vous?

Yes, I know it's Sunday, not Friday...we've had a somewhat busy week, you see, a SON's WEDDING AND ALL (20 years in the making, but it's a long story), so I'm running a little behind. Actually, this first post-wedding afternoon, Fellow Traveler has conked out in the bedroom of the cottage we're renting here in the Portage Lake area north of Ann Arbor, while I'm brewing some iced tea and getting caught up on the 'puter.

But this is all actually somewhat relevant to today's Friday Five. Because we've spent much of the past week running errands back and forth between here, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti -- homes, respectively, of the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. The campuses there, as well as their surrounding cities, are gearing up for Welcome Week and the start of the fall semester; we found ourselves sharing the local highways with cars jam-packed and spilling over with back-to-school stuff, and even gave one befuddled parent in an Ann Arbor parking lot directions to campus while the flushed, freshman-y young woman beside her could barely contain her excitement. That did bring back memories of our own university days. (The photo above, by the way, is of Yakeley Hall, my home for three years at Michigan State.)

So, with that in mind, I commence to our Friday Five:

1) What was the hardest thing to leave behind when you went away to school for the first time?
Our new puppy. My parents' sweet little fuzzy-faced mutt had been killed by a car earlier in the summer; but despite their initial declaration that they were never having another dog ever again, by August they'd placed a classified in the local paper inquiring about "Benji-type" dogs. The day the paper came out they'd gotten a phone call from someone who said she'd rescued a cute terrier-mix puppy from a downstate freeway median but just couldn't keep her; might we be interested? My dad said sure; so the next day the family drove by and introduced us to a raggedy, rail-thin but flamboyant pup who leapt from the car, gave kisses to everyone within licking distance and proceeded to race around and around our house as if saying, "I like it here! I like it here!" So Mitzi became part of the family -- two weeks before I left for school. That was tough.

2) We live in the era of helicopter parents. How much fuss did your parents make when you first left home?
The concept of helicopter parents has certainly changed over the decades. When I was in school the deal was that, barring emergency, I would call home every Sunday evening to check in; I'd let the phone ring twice, then hang up, and the 'rents would call me back so I wouldn't have to pay for a long-distance call. This would wind up being maybe a 10-minute call if any of us were particularly chatty. My mother would write me every other week, and I in turn might manage a monthly written summary/unload of stuff too personal to communicate over the phone lines. And this was a rarity; most of my friends talked to their parents far less. How odd this seems now, in these days of families attached 24/7 to their cell phones and Facebook pages.

My parents -- neither of whom went to college -- did not make a great deal of fuss when they moved me into my first dorm room; it was a pretty businesslike transaction (despite my inner "YIPPEE!" ready to burst out). But many years later my mom told me that they were both traumatized by this event; that they cried all the way home.

3) Share a favorite memory of living with schoolmates, whether in a dorm or other shared housing.
Even though I loved being in college, I always felt the odd woman out on my particular dorm floor; a poor country kid surrounded by affluent suburbanites, daughters of auto-company execs and other professionals. I only knew of perhaps three other women on the floor with a similar background.

One night, after coming home late from a Lutheran campus ministry function (I was a church geek even then, although in those days church geekery tended to involve beer before, during or after said church function), I found one of the blue-collar women, a studious education major from a homeftown nearly as small as mine, sitting forlornly in the hallway; she'd forgotten her room key and was waiting for her roommate to return from the bar. The floor seemed otherwise empty; it was the weekend, after all, and most people were out partying. She had been out herself, and had evidently had a lot more to drink than I had with my Lootern buddies; enough to completely disable her self-censoring mechanism. And she was in the mood to talk. To me. About everything.

So I kept her company out in the hallway, as she proceeded to unload all the deliciously snarky observations about the rich girls around us that I shared deep down but had never been able to articulate to anyone before: the materialism and conspicuous consumption; the lack of real interest in academics and the life of the mind; the not-terribly-hidden bigotries against various minorities on campus and petty unkindnesses toward other students in general; the silliness of Greek life; the sense of entitlement that was often mind-boggling to those of us who didn't come from well-to-do or education-friendly families; the way the reality of their behavior conflicted with the fantasies we'd had about escaping our smallminded small towns for ivy-covered halls filled with big ideas and progressive thinkers.  When I heard, "____ YOU, you BITCHES," come out of the mouth of this normally meek future schoolteacher, each word suspended in echo down the empty hall, I felt like a therapist helping someone through a catharsis...maybe even my own.

After that evening, whenever we met in the hallway or at some gathering we always seemed to give one another a special raised-eyebrow acknowledgement: We've got their number, sisterfriend.

4) What absolute necessity of college life in your day would seem hilariously out-of-date now?
Typewriters; typing paper; typewriter erasers; carbon paper; press-on type for graphics projects.

5) What innovation of today do you wish had been part of your life in college?
Laptop computers. Back in my college days, only the geekiest of the geeks over in the honors science dorm had access to personal computers -- and we're talking the Atari/first-iteration Apple kind. I remember taking an off-campus adult enrichment class on the Apple, being totally befuddled by the whole thing, and thinking, "What possible practical use will this ever be to me?"

Bonus question for those whose college days feel like a long time ago: Share a rule or regulation that will seem funny now. Did you really follow it then?
Co-ed dorms had become the norm at MSU by my time, so my own single-sex dorm, and the rules that governed male visitors, already seemed like a quaint novelty -- as did the Women's Lounge in the Student Union. I myself liked the restrictions; I didn't particularly care for running into other students' male sleepovers in the communal shower room, or the puerile types who tried crashing the Women's Lounge (which was very well-appointed, quiet and comfortable compared to the other common areas of the Union)  to make a point about reverse discrimination or to pick up women or to leer at lesbians or whatever.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Self-Care, New and Alt.

So here's what's happening in my ongoing campaign to get well-er with the help of a sympathetic holistic DO:

After running me through some labwork, Doc says that I have some issues with my adrenal glands -- specifically, my fight-or-flight hormones are going full-tilt boogie from the moment I get up in the morning until late at night, wreaking havoc with everything from my blood pressure to my insulin production to my lady issues. "The saber-toothed tiger is after you all day," she said. She told me that if I don't do something to change this state of affairs, I run a very good risk of developing diabetes.

First she changed my blood pressure medicine from a calcium-channel blocker that was making me lightheaded to the point of almost passing out in the mornings to a diuretic and a magnesium supplement. She prescribed me fish oil for blood pressure as well as cholesterol control. She directed me to an herbal supplement for evening out my blood sugar during the day, and another for adrenal health. And because my Vitamin D level was so alarmingly low, she told me to take that as well as maximize my intake through prudent sun exposure and dietary sources.

All of which sounds like a whole lot o' pills. But Doc wants to eventually get me to the point of not needing this stuff. Which brings us to the lifestyle-change section of this program.

Doc is not a fan of high-protein, low-carb diets because they tend to be hard on the kidneys. She is steering me toward the Mediterranean diet model -- big on fresh vegetables, fruits and legume; a moderate amount of whole, preferably minimally processed grains; healthy fats; a glass of wine on occasion; and quite modest helpings of meat, mostly fish or chicken.

She also, while happy that I'm doing a lot of gardening and other weight-bearing kinds of daily tasks, wants me to spend 30 minutes a day on aerobic activities like walking; and she wants me to do the aerobics in the early evening because of the way my metabolism works. This to me is counterintuitive; I prefer walking in the morning; and it's bumping our dinnertime ahead to the old farmer's suppertimes I grew up with. But I'm compromising by doing some easygoing handweight resistance exercise in the morning, between getting the coffee going and feeding Mollie. Doc also told me to schedule relaxation, in any way that works for me, into my day the way I'd schedule any other daily to-do.

I'm only maybe three weeks into this routine. But so far I've noticed that I'm sleeping better, while having more energy during the day. I'm no longer experiencing near-fainting spells. The walking is,among other things, improving my posture -- and giving me some quality quiet time in the pleasant subdivision behind our house. And both FT and I think my moods are on a more even keel.

Now, I know much of this advice is simple common sense. But it's helpful to have a doctor -- and a partner -- who are willing to be my accountability partners in this process.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Meals on Wheels

Got a chicken in the pot today, stewing away with some vegetables, destined for a big pan of chicken and noodles to send over to our friend with lung cancer.

This is a sad story that seems to be getting sadder. Not necessarily the prognosis -- she doesn't yet know if her chemotherapy has been effective in battling her disease; I take her to get her first post-chemo MRI tomorrow. But I detect a certain loss of hope in our friend, who wasn't in good health even before her diagnosis; and part of that may be due to living in her household, with yappy, needy small dogs, a difficult elderly mother-in-law who spends all day motionless in a kitchen chair, smoking and grumping about the lack of "fun" in her life, and a mostly-absent partner who, at least to us, seems to be drawing back emotionally as well in a cutting-her-losses kind of way. I'm not going to judge; this may be denial or depression or fatigue or tough-girl bravado: "I can handle this." But it's obvious to two outsiders, let alone her partner.

Fellow Traveler and I tend to have boundary issues in the other direction. But we, along with a sympathetic neighbor, have been taking our friend to her medical appointments; and when we learned that the other partner was not even attempting to make meals, leaving the sick partner and Mama scrounging the kitchen for food on a catch-as-catch-can basis, we decided to commit to making two meals a week for the family -- an entree and either a side dish or fruit dessert, enough for an evening meal and leftovers for lunch. We've been making one scratch meal and one "semi-homemade" meal using various boxed food products as a base for an entree.

This work has meaning for me. I've been enjoying creating menus to take over there, and preparing the food. And on some level it seems like a kind of karmic do-over for the years when my mentally ill aunt was in a downward spiral, my mother was too anxious and enmeshed in 40-year-old sibling issues to respond to that in very effective ways, and I was so angry and unhappy with my life at the time that I -- like our sick friend's partner -- just disassociated myself from the whole thing until I was forced by circumstances to step in and be proactive on my aunt's behalf. And I also remember, in my grumpy 30's and early 40's, being consumed with that same inward-turned resentment expressed by our friend's mother-in-law, in the midst of my aunt's mental breakdown and my mother's increasing fragility and anxiety-paralysis: I'm not having any fun. When is it going to be my time to have fun? Ouch.

You can teach an old dog, I hope, new tricks; it's taken me almost 50 years to get compassion in a gut-level way, but I'm trying to get a handle on it, day by day.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Memorable Friday Five

This week's Friday Five is about memories. In honor of that theme, I'm illustrating my post with a photo of a Brownie camera, one of the memories of my childhood. My parents, who were not keen on picture-taking -- too expensive -- kept the Brownie in their bedroom, in the drawer of the headboard, next to my mom's jewelry box, and only brought it out for holidays and other special events.  Closing my eyes now, I can even smell the musty, leathery smell of the camera. But I digress.

We were asked to share:

A treasured memory from childhood: Going to the grain elevator with my dad in the summertime, and getting a quarter to put in a rusty, battered old Coca-Cola machine that sat in a dusty corner. The elevator smelled of grain...molasses...mineral blocks. Sparrows chirped from the rafters. I would buy a bottle of Coca-Cola, and split it with my dad. It's never tasted the same since I was a little kid.

A teenage memory: Another farm-related memory: Making hay. It was a great summer job. I drove tractor while my dad stacked the hay bales. My father was very exacting about baling and wouldn't tolerate lost hay; I had to practice to aim the baler right down the middle of the windrows, and turn corners so that not one strand of loose hay escaped the baler -- or else I'd have to go back, after the field was baled, and pick up all the missed corners.  Once I was sufficiently schooled in that task, though, I was happy to drive around and around, thinking my own thoughts, composing Great American Novels, observing the wildlife around me in the fields and surrounding pastures. I really think every teenager should have a job that involves some sort of manual proficiency, and a tangible work product.

A young adult memory: Other than my university years, I don't have a lot of happy young adult memories. After I graduated from college I couldn't find a job in my major, or indeed any kind of college-graduate-worthy job, and wound up working in a bookstore. If you have to slum, that's about the best slumming job there is. But I recall walking home from the food coop one day, and being overtaken by a wave of despair and hopelessness. I will never find a real job, I remember thinking. I am going to become one of those burned-out college town lifers who haunt the sidewalks and cafes decades after their university careers. It actually took me two more years to escape that fate.

A memory from this summer: We just made a good memory, this very weekend, by taking a spontaneous two-day stealth vaycay up to Suttons Bay for the Suttons Bay Art Fair. (This pleasant surprise was made possible by the Saginaw Chippewa tribe -- ironic considering my profound lack of interest in gambling. Earlier in the week FT had been called away from a stained glass project for The Kids by her sister, whose car had broken down -- in Frankenmuth, two hours away. No one else was available to help. FT reluctantly made the trip downstate, got her sister back home, headed north -- and stopped en route to discharge some frustration at a regional casino. Ten minutes into her grumpy arrival she hit a jackpot at a nickel machine. When she called me, she was so excited that she could barely make sense. FT's 10-minute flirtation with Lady Luck pretty much paid for our excursion. I'm not complaining.) We had a romantic evening meal at North Centennial Inn, a restored inn with a lovely wrap-around porch overlooking a shady perennial garden. The food was wonderful; the service was professional and discreet; the atmosphere was evocative of historic "lake country." It was a beautiful way to spend a cool summer evening.

A memory you hope to have. I would like to be able to, at the end of my days, genuinely say, Thank you for the gift of my life.
Bonus: And on that note, here's Dave Matthews singing a favorite Beatles song of mine:

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Five: ...And That's Why It's Good to Be Me

On the RevGalBlogPals blog today, Kathrynzj writes:

This Friday Five will post while I'm at the beach which for me is more than a vacation destination, it is a trip home. I have found it quite easy to wax nostalgic about the places I used to live (well, except for one) and have begun to wonder what it is I like about the place I'm living now? For instance I sure do love the beach, but this picture was taken about 30 minutes away from my house - not too shabby!

And so I ask you to please name five things you like about where you are living now... and as your bonus - 1 thing you don't like.

Excellent -- we were just talking about this very thing during one of our evening countryside excursions. And it fits nicely into this Sunday's lessons too, which  made me think about wanting what we have instead of having what we want.

Five things I like about where I'm living now:

1. Proximity to the countryside. We are literally five minutes away from some of the prettiest countryside in rural Michigan -- roads lined with tree tunnels dripping in wild grapevines, Amish farms and farmstands, winding brooks. It is a blessing to, most evenings during the light months, say, "Hey -- let's go for a ride."

2. Our yard. I love our spacious yard and the trees that circle it, providing a buffer between neighboring properties. Fellow Traveler and I both appreciate a certain amount of breathing room around our house, and we have it.  We also appreciate neighbors who are close enough to provide very basic community -- our backyard neighbor, for instance, an ex-big-city-cop, keeps an eye on our home if we're gone, and as regular readers here know we more or less shared a dog with our neighbors to the west -- but distant enough both physically and socially to not be up in all our business, and vice versa.

2. Our patio. We have a patio with a gazebo providing (give or take various layers of outerwear, of course) three seasons of enjoyment. It's a great place to drink one's morning coffee or work on some portable household chore. And we are slowly replanting around it, so next year it will be even nicer.

3. Stonework. Our house, which dates back to the 70's, features some pretty cut stonework with real, not prefab, stones. That reminds me of the fieldstone farmhouse of my childhood.

4. Proximity to basic necessities. Even though there are definite drawbacks to living on a busy county highway on the outskirts of a town, it's also nice to know that if we need a grocery item or a pizza or gasoline it's all about three blocks down. So even though we feel "out in the country" we also feel connected to civilization. Sort of.

5. Interior decorating. Our interior is still a work in progress -- our family activities this past year put a temporary halt to our plans to paint and to embark on a re-do of our bedroom -- but I love the melding of our two households, and the eclectic look of our rooms -- antiques and Michigan-themed artwork and funky collectibles.

One thing I do not like: We haven't had the time or energy to tackle renovating our main bathroom, which was originally decorated in a style I can only call WTF. Imagine a robin's-egg blue toilet; a cornflower blue tub-and-shower unit; a sink in the same shade but marbled; a kind of French provincial white vanity, all surrounded by tiles with a 70's-contemporary stylized flower print. When the robin's-egg toilet broke about a year ago and needed to be replaced, I cried -- with joy. I'm much more excited by repainting and decorating our bedroom; but I will not be sad when our bathroom also gets its eventual makeover.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Five: Decisions, Decisions

This week's Friday Five is all about one of my least favorite things in the world -- making decisions. But at least the originator of this quiz was kind enough to narrow them down to pairs:

1. Cake or Pie  No contest here -- PIE. What's not to like about pie? You've got your rich, delicious crust; you've got any number of yummy, gooey fillings. Whereas cake is just...well...cake.

2) Train or Airplane  In our part of the world we have no commuter trains. The closest we have are scenic-tour "color trains" that go up and down the state a few times during the autumn months. So if the goal is actually getting somewhere, I've got to go with the airplane. If, however, I lived somewhere with comfortable, affordable passenger rail service, I might choose the train just for the adventure of it, and the windowside sightseeing.

3) Mac or PC  I've only had limited exposure to Mac use. My impression, after spending a couple of hours on a Mac once, was, "Hmmm...this is nice. When can I go back to my old computer?" Sorry, Mac fans.

4) Univocal or Equivocal  I prefer the wiggle room of equivocal. Univocal is too Brave New World.

5) Peter or Paul  Neither; try Mary (any of the major Marys of Scripture). Both Peter and Paul remind me of the sort of ranty, unpleasant sidewalk preachers I used to walk a half-mile around my university campus to stay away from.  The Apostle John's okay too; I wouldn't walk a half-mile around John.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Our Green Scene

After devoting yesterday to marinating in my sadness, I resolved to start getting on with the business of everyday life this morning.
And several of those tasks involved tending our various gardening projects around the yard.

One of our landscaping goals for this year has been to change up the area around our deck -- to pull out the old, straggly spirea shrubs and fill those spaces with perennials. This turned out to be much harder than I first thought; spirea have an extensive, insidious root system, and I wound up  undergoing an unexpected regimen of strength training through several hours of chopping and twisting and yanking. (I'm not sure what benefit, if any, was gained from the concomitant cursing.) I left one tidied shrub on either side of the deck -- a case of turning a necessity into a virtue, because I simply couldn't dislodge one of them -- which actually turned out to make some design sense, because the shrubs form a logical boundary between the sunny and shady ends of the deck.

Now that that's been done, and a layer of new topsoil put down around the deck, the challenge has been to fill in the blanks. Fellow Traveler, who enjoys flowers and who actually came up with the idea of a perennial border but who is frankly not that interested in the particulars, gave me carte blanche in the selection and purchase of plants. I in turn have been restraining my horticultural exuberance and obtaining plants in a measured, prudent way, taking some time each week to visit the local fruit markets' rather neglected hodge-podges of small, cheap perennial starters or, if I'm feeling in need of inspiration, making a trip into the country to the nearest perennial nursery. This place is on an old farmstead, the business right in the backyard of the owners; despite this, it carries a staggering number of potted perennials displayed in thematic groupings all around the old farm outbuildings, and an entire field of hybrid daylilies that looks like a Monet painting when they're in full bloom.

I don't really have a picture in my head of what this is going to look like when it's all planted. With a few calculated exceptions, my plant purchases have been fairly random; the space around our deck encompasses all manner of light exposures, and requires both tall and short plants to fill, so there's lots of room for improvisation.

Today I planted some mixed sedums in the rocky bare space left by the demise of an absolutely ugly old potentilla that the previous owners used, not very successfully, to screen the area around the air conditioning unit. Sedums are great bee flowers, so if we follow through with that goal next year our little friends will have some needed nectar in the autumn. On the opposite side of the deck, in an equally troublesome, unattractive bare patch, are some lavender plants, a tricolor sage and a novelty pink, with soft gray needle-like leaves and odd, raggedy-fringed flowers in various shades of their namesake color -- all plants that can take heat and poor soil and that generally look pretty whether or not they're in bloom.

And then of course there's the vegetable garden. Thank heavens I raised the beds this spring. We've had so much rain this year that after each storm the walkways around the beds have been turned into canals, with ankle-high water; the garden would have been underwater several times this year if it had remained level with the lawn. But we were so busy in April and May, and the weather was so uncooperative at times, that things got planted about a week and a half later than I would have liked, and now our vegetables are a little behind the local curve. But they seem to be doing well; the lettuce is flourishing despite our naturally acidic soil, the seed-raised tomatoes are healthy and blooming, snap beans and cucurbits are loaded with blossoms, and the first planting of corn -- a new experiment this year -- is starting to sprout tassels. Today I planted a row of snap beans for a late crop -- admittedly pushing the envelope, but these are two-year-old seeds I wanted to use up, and by my calculation they can still yield -- and pulled a bucketful of crabgrass out of various beds. There is still much about gardening I need to learn -- I'm still trying to understand the trick of getting my radishes to make bulbous roots, and my maiden attempt at using black plastic mulch for the hot-weather veggies, while practically effective so far, looks like hell. And as I look at the modest rows of herbs, I can't help but think that I consistently underestimate how much we use these in the kitchen.

Gardening is good, cheap therapy, I've found.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Memento Mori

Mortality has been on my mind a lot lately.

Not just because of Gertie. This has been going on for awhile now.

Maybe it's a function of middle age, when our bodies start letting us down in various ways (sometimes literally) -- I mean, when my doctor looked me in the eye and told me that she needed to lower my blood pressure because "I don't want you to die of a stroke," that got my attention. As did Fellow Traveler's recent confirmation that the ongoing, intense pain in her jaw that radiates into her ear and down her neck and often keeps her up at night is the result of rheumatoid arthritis eating away all the cartilage between the bone; that this problem isn't fixable by a bite guard; that there may be some serious surgery in her future.

And I'm sure part of it is also due to the sheer number of people we know, face to face and on the Internet, who are fighting life-threatening illnesses. One of FT's high school friends, whom we saw at her recent reunion, had a stroke about a week ago. Right now we personally know a half-dozen people diagnosed with particularly scary cancers, who are undergoing chemo and radiation.

And then there's random, accidental death, like Gertie's. It could have been any of us, in one of our vehicles, making the wrong decision at any second.

Cheery thoughts, I know. But it's been an uncheery day, mostly dark and rainy, and I spent most of it on the sofa, staring out the window.

I'd like to say that I have full confidence in Dame Julian's assertion that, in the end, "All will be well and all manner of thing will be well." But when death ceases to become an abstraction and feels more like a target on my own back and that of my loved's hard to hang on to a sense that there is any meaning or purpose or redemptive outcome in it. And, I'm sorry to say, the skeptical, deconstructionist Zeitgeist of the last two centuries has so eviscerated the Christian message of resurrection that it's ceased to become believeable for many people -- because there's little sincerity in its proclamation; more of what my pastor calls "anxiety management"; a comforting fairy story, a little nursery tune to whistle in the darkness of the vicissitudes of life.

And let's not even talk about the loss of an animal companion. Outside the circle of people who love and have been loved by animal companions, it's not taken seriously -- not by the Church, not by health professionals, not by employers, not even by family and friends who don't understand. I know a patronizing pat on the head when I feel it.

Fellow Traveler and I have, since Gertie's death, received many personal and heartfelt condolences by individuals. But as far as any practical help from "faith stuff" -- got nothin'.  And as far as thoughts of what lies beyond our own mortality -- I don't hear a lot of there there in the Church these days. Not only don't we have the courage of our convictions these days, we don't even seem to have convictions, no matter how many times we recite the Creed or celebrate what we call "the foretaste of the feast to come."

I really do not want to be this gloomy, or to depress other people. But this is what I'm feeling, straight up. Hiding it behind a wan smile and fuzzy platitudes would be lying. 

Gertie: Gone

It happened in a blink of an eye.

We were in the Jeep, Gertie and I, driving home from a trip running errands. We had found ourselves behind an Amish cart at a corner, and I patiently waited there for the driver to pull onto the highway and gain some momentum so we weren't tailgating him. Gertie, who loved to bark at horses, was on full alert in the back seat.

"Gert -- now, behave yourself," I cautioned her as I pulled onto the pavement and began to pass the cart driver, who'd gone off onto the shoulder to give me room.

What happened next was -- well, I don't know. I heard barking, and clinking, and then when I looked back to shush Gertie, there was no dog in the back seat. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw a dark shape limping into a bush in someone's lawn maybe 50 feet away, and the Amish driver stopped on the shoulder, staring in alarm.

Gertie had never, in her years with us, expressed any interest in jumping out of the window. But apparently this is what she did.

I stopped the Jeep, ran back toward the yard and scooped up Gertie in my arms; she was quiet -- too quiet -- and panting.

"I am so sorry," I said to the Amish man.

"Don't be sorry," he said. "It was my horse she didn't like. I hope she'll be okay. It looks like she might have broken her leg."

We were only about  mile or so from home. I don't remember driving there, but I did. Fellow Traveler was in the garage, cleaning. She smiled when she saw me -- until she saw the look on my face.

"We need to go to the vet's right now," I burst out. "Something's happened to Gertie. She jumped out of the car."

Up to this point I'd been running on adrenalin, my mind a blank, but at that point I broke down.

Not Gertie. Not our baby. Not "our" dog.

FT quickly examined Gertie, who winced and whined a little, but mostly just lay there on the back seat. She'd begun to bleed.

"Here's what I want you to do," FT said. "I want you to go inside and get a damp towel. Then I want you to find the veterinary hospital phone number." I numbly nodded.

FT came in while I was still wringing out the towel. "I don't want you to go with me," she said. "There's probably going to be a lot of pain during the examination. You've seen and done enough right now."

I sat in the living room and listened to the Jeep speed down the driveway and to the next town over, where the closest veterinary clinic is. Across from me Mollie the cat slept, blissfully unaware of the drama playing out in our home. I started to sob.

A very short time later, I got a phone call. "We are at the vet's," FT murmured softly. "We're going to have to put Gertie to sleep. There's too much internal injury for her to get better." This veterinarian's office euthanizes all its animals at the end of the business day, so FT had the veterinarian call our local animal shelter, where we'd taken Katie and Cassie when they were dying, where the staff had been so kind and gentle; and they told FT to bring Gertie right over.

"Now, I can drive home first," began FT.

"No -- no," I cried. "Don't make her suffer any more."

Another half hour passed; and then FT pulled into the driveway.

"I'm so sorry," I sobbed when a red-faced, weeping FT came through the door. "I'm sorry you had to do the hard thing."

She shook her head. "No; you had the hardest part of the day."

And that's how it's been around here. We cry; we hold one another; we reminisce; we try to distract ourselves; we move to opposite chairs and just sit quietly with our own grief.

This morning we began picking up after Gertie for the last time: collecting the dog biscuits scattered throughout the house, bagging up her battered assortment of toys, cleaning her pawprints off the French doors. We're also trying to somehow convey to Mollie the cat, who keeps sniffing and staring out the windows and looking at us quizzically, that her best pal is not coming back.

I know that people who aren't pet people don't get this; don't get how we, whose circle of friends includes people fighting terrible cancers and other mind-numbing calamities, can be so seemingly dispassionate about those things but so uncontrollably distraught over the loss of a dog. And frankly, if animals aren't your thing, I'm not even going to bother to explain.

But for those of you who love your own animal companions: I don't have to explain this to you, because you know the hurt. Add to that the fact that Gertie was our first dog together, and our only dog for most of her life, and the circumstances of our rescuing her, and the circumstances of our losing her...this is a really, really tough one.

This ain't my first rodeo when it comes to the death of an animal. Growing up on a farm, death is a  constant presence among the livestock. And I've lived through my share of dead dogs -- dogs who darted in front of cars in a final, fatal "ooh, shiny" moment; dogs in extremis whom my rifle-bearing great-uncle would take "out back" at the behest of my dad, never to be seen again; graying, cataract-and-arthritis-ridden dogs who simply gave up the ghost in their sleep after a long, full life.  Right now I can't read any treacly homages to pets crossing the Rainbow belief system gives me no comfort, frankly, damn it...I just brood and weep and try to stop the images of those horrific moments and the self-punishing "What ifs" from circling around and around my head.

Gertie was the Best Dog Ever. That's what we would tell her every day, and it's what I'm saying now. She didn't deserve the way she entered into this world, and she didn't deserve the way she exited it. But in the time in between she added so much joy and humor and affection and companionship to our lives. Maybe that doesn't count anywhere but in our hearts and memories. But it counts to me. Gertie left the world, and our lives, a far better place for her having lived in it.

Rest in peace, good friend.

Friday, July 09, 2010

A Forgetful Friday Five

Oh, wow...this Friday Five won't be pleasant...
a) What's the last thing you forgot?
Putting our environmentally friendly clothing shopping bags BACK IN OUR VEHICLES SO WE CAN ACTUALLY USE THEM.

e) How do you keep track of appointments?
I used to be able to do this in my head. I have now graduated to a write-on/wipe-off memo board on our refrigerator and, if I'm really more on top of things than usual, a memo to myself on my cell phone.

i) Do you keep a running grocery list?
We do, again on our special refrigerator board. Whether that list actually makes it into a store is another story.

o) When forced to improvise by circumstances, do you enjoy it or panic?
I used to panic; now I generally utter an un-church-ladylike word and punt.

u) What's a memory you hope you will never forget?
Interesting question. I've been doing a lot of reminiscing about my childhood lately, so I treasure some of the happier memories of those days. And the adventures of FT and me during our first year together, I never want to forget, particularly our fateful first meeting over Buffalo wings and iced tea.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Friday Five: Here's the Church...of My Dreams

Bonhoeffer may have looked askance at "wish dreams" of a perfect Church...but I don't think it hurts to periodically think about what sort of Church we would all like to be part of. And that's this week's RevGalBlogPals Friday Five Challenge. I'll keep it short and sweet -- discuss if you wish:
I want to be part of a Church that...

1. pays as much attention to the spiritual formation of its people -- laypeople and clergy alike -- as it pays attention to doctrinal and social issues.

2. aims for depth as well as breadth, on a multiplicity of levels.

3. says what it means and means what it says.

4. inspires people outside the Church to say, "If I were a Christian, that's the kind of Christian I'd want to be"...and follow up on that.

5. has enough confidence in its beliefs, practices and mission to live into the future without fear -- without falling into desperate faddishness, without equivocating in order to avoid conflict, without drawing its wagons into a circle, without giving up.

6. has potlucks featuring food groups other than sausage, sauerkraut, whipped cream and Jello. (I know...blasphemy. I suppose now I have to turn in my membership card.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hangin' With the Amish

With the growing season underway, we've been stepping up our Amishing around the neighborhood, buying onions and strawberries and other delicacies from their local roadside stands.

One day I decided to give back, just a little. I planted dozens of tomato seeds this winter, with seedling mortality in mind -- but all of them flourished, and I wound up with many more than what I needed. So when we went on our weekly round of the farms, we stopped at a couple of the visibly poorer farms and asked the ladies of the house if they'd mind taking our extra tomato plants.

The reaction was interesting. "What do you want for them?" both women immediately asked, frowning.

I explained our predicament. "We don't want anything," I said. "You're doing us a favor. And we're thanking you for all the good food we get here."

That broke the air of formality in both households, and we had some enjoyable discussions about tomato husbandry and farming in general. The women seemed a little surprised, and approving, that I'd started the plants from seed, and wanted to know if they were heirlooms or hybrids. (I always feel woefully incompetent in survival skills when I deal with the Amish, so it was frankly  satisfying to show off my modestly green thumb.)

Afterward FT noted, "I wonder why we get more out of our relationships with our Amish neighbors than the 'English' ones."

We live in a community where people with life competency of any kind are in short supply -- long gone, thanks to Michigan's protracted economic doldrums -- so our 'English' neighbors tend to be, as our friends in social services say, lacking in coping mechanisms and a support network...fancy talk for My Big Fucked-Up Redneck Life. And, ironically, as gay folks, even though we know we'd not be accepted in Amish society, we also seem to have a common set of detractors and harassers -- fundamentalists and good ol' boys, both groups possessing a dangerous mixture of ignorance, inferiority complex, entitlement mentality and xenophobia. When we see a group of 20-somethings in a pickup truck trying to run an Amish buggy off the road, or read hysterical screeds by fundamentalist pastors bleating on about saving the Amish from the dangers and dysfunctions of their "cult," we nod and think, We get that too.

At the same time we hold no idealistic allusions about Amish society. We understand that their community is not immune from spousal and child abuse, addiction, out-of-control teenagers and the vagaries of an economy that affects even these most self-sufficient of people. We obviously have difference of opinion about everything from gender roles to the wise use of technology.And looking at the Amish through my Lutheran lenses, I might point out that, no matter how "called out" from the world Christians might presume to be, we're all still sinners, and no amount of good-works points is going to change that. Despite the grace I see in their actions, I don't always see a lot of grace in their theology.

But -- we still like 'em. We just do. And we love the kids, who -- unlike the sort of Stepford fundamentalist-homeschool kids I've encountered, or the jaded, prematurely "adulted" and technology-numbed children of the rest of the neighborhood -- actually act like kids; like the little boy who played hide-and-seek with us around his parents' roadside stand, or our furniture-maker  friends' toddler daughter who, while we were talking bidness with Dad,  was trying unsuccessfully to write on a bemused family dog with an ink pen, or the self-assured tweenage counter girl at the Amish bakery who, taking a marketing cue from McDonald's, always goes for an extra sell: "If you like that bread, maybe you'd like some cinnamon rolls too."

Our corner of Michigan may not be the hippest or the most scenic or the most historic. But our Amish community helps make it a better place to live.

Loving the Neighbors

Fellow Traveler and I have friends, a lesbian couple in their sixties and seventies respectively, who live a few miles down the road from us; FT met them at a neighborhood Christmas party shortly after moving to this area. The two live in a household I'll call Dysfunction Junction, a remodeled trailer on the edge of a river.

How can I describe this couple? They remind me of characters in a 1950's lesbian pulp novel, all growed up but still dressing and acting according to the Sisterhood's script of those times; think tough girls in jeans with a pack of Camels rolled into their T-shirt sleeve. Each has a past that she seems extremely reluctant to talk about. One partner has numerous health problems and hasn't worked for years; the other, younger partner has worked for years at a physically as well as emotionally punishing nearly-minimum-wage job. They've also been caregivers to two live-in invalid parents, although they seem to have burned bridges with many of their other family members -- including their children.

The two dwell in a cloud of blue cigarette smoke, so much so that we literally can't visit their home for more than a few minutes at a time before FT is sent into an asthma attack.They operate in a state of perpetual personal and household disshevelment; on the margins in a multiplicity of ways. They cycle through doomed money-making schemes; financial crises; caregiving problems; health issues; simultaneously exploitative and exploited "friends" who come and go. We in turn lose track of them for months at a time; then they'll call asking for help of some kind, or wanting to borrow some tool or appliance from us (that is inevitably lost or broken) and we'll briefly get involved in their lives again...until, once more, their neediness begins to overwhelm us.

A few weeks ago, after months of not hearing from them, one of the partners appeared on our doorstep. This time it wasn't about borrowing a saw. She told us that the other partner had been diagnosed with a large, inoperable tumor in her lung, and was about to undergo chemotherapy. She sank down into our sofa and, blinking away tears, began unloading about her partner's illness; problems with her live-in parent; loss of an elderly friend; her overwhelming physical and emotional fatigue and worries about money.

So here we are again, trying to help this couple without becoming completely sucked into the vortex of their household trials. We said we could help take the sick partner to chemotherapy once or twice a week. Knowing how difficult it was for the well partner to make meals for the household -- the sick partner tended to be the family cook, but is now too weak to do that -- we decided we'd make food for them once a week; enough for a good meal and leftovers. FT, who has facility with computers, offered to help fix their computer so that the sick partner can maintain some contact with her family through e-mail.

Yesterday we dropped by to pick up the computer. The ill partner, who just finished her first round of chemotherapy, met us at the door, ashen-faced, surrounded by a pack of yapping toy dogs (the result of a failed let's-make-money-selling-puppies Grand Plan, plus a rescue dog, plus Mama's dog). She let us in, then pulled me aside amid the chaos of the dogs and the durch-und-unter of the tiny living space and the vacantly cheerful, nonverbal mother-in-law who spends the day just sitting at the kitchen table.

"I need some spiritual guidance," she said. "I've been trying to pray. I pray an act of contrition and and Our Father every night. And I've been doing some bargaining with God too. But...I'm just really scared right now."

I can't remember exactly how I responded to her; something about how every prayer is a good prayer and to just keep talking to God; some sort of unnerved, caught-off-guard church-geek gibberish. I also told her to call me if she just needed to talk or wanted me to come over.

It's a daunting thought, being asked to provide the closest thing to pastoral care that this lady is willing to accept.. I had my Moses/Peter moment: "Um, no, God, you really don't want me to do this job. Because deep, deep down I'm shallow; too shallow to walk the valley of the shadow with anyone. You want someone with spiritual chops; not me." But now that I've had a day to think and pray about it, I know that I am being called to carry Christ, somehow, into the life of this individual. How that happens...well, we'll see.