Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Someday I hope to be able to always look up ...

Someday I hope to be able to always look up in any circumstance.  The idea came to me after reading a blog by fellow writer and nature photographer Jack McLeod.  In the blog, Jack wrote of a  soul provoking Christmas present from his daughter: 52 weeks of challenges, the first of which was to simply "look up".  Jack's looking up involved his reflection in word and photo and deed.

Perhaps it was his blog...perhaps it was the photos from his time of "looking up" included here, but something in those two words ruminated in my head like a brain worm, sort of a background whisper to the start of my day. 

That start included a morning meeting in a nearby town, so I located a French bakery for treats  to add to our sharing of tea and conversation. Perusing the delicacies, I contemplated what I could bring for my long awaited chat session with my friend.  Turning away from the fruit custard tarts and sixteen layer cakes, I directed my attention to the pastries, so light and airy I could feel the flakes falling on my shirt.  A young woman took my order, and as she prepared it, I stood transfixed by the array of sweets, fighting the desire to buy one of each.

Then I heard Jack's challenge in my head..."Look up." I turned my gaze towards the small courtyard outside where frost still dusted the concrete from the previous night.  The twenty degree weather was still clinging to the air as I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye.  There next to a small tree stood a young man and a young woman cramming their sleeping bags into plastic bags and then into a small shopping cart.  I knew immediately that the frost covered concrete of the small patio had been their mattress for the night and imagined what the night must have been like, as we had experienced a prolonged cold spell. Immediately, a whisper began in my head, “Buy them breakfast." 

I could feel The Whisper's strength, but equally strong were the voices against the plan. The line was long, a meeting awaited for which I was already late...the list of reasons forming in my head drowned out The Whisper. I picked up my order at the sound of my name and headed to the car, and as I opened the car door, The Whisper's strength in my head increased.  And so did the litany of excuses.  

         I could go to Safeway and buy some coffees and pastries...but that would take too much time.
         What if I came back with all the food and no one was there anymore?
         What if I came back and they were violent when I offered breakfast?

Finally, I realized that I would not get peace until I just listened to The Whisper, so I called my friend, simply letting her know I would be late and that it was a Holy Spirit thing.

When I returned, the voices began again:

         What if they are gone?
         What if you get robbed?
         What if they are mentally ill?

But the choice was the same: listen and follow or be haunted by the missed opportunity.

I rounded the corner walking into the small courtyard and placed the coffee and rolls in their hands along with some money for lunch.   I introduced myself and shook their hands.

"It cannot have been easy to sleep outside last night," I offered as they introduced themselves.

"It's a good spot," he replied, "a safe place."

"At least we're together," she added.

I asked them what led them to be sleeping outside that night, and they both shared a simple story which is probably common to many in this situation.  I let them know about the local missions, but I knew that a couple devoted to each other would be split up from each other.  Thinking of my own husband and protector, I understood that being with someone you love and who cares for you sometimes trumps everything.

We talked in the cold, and then, as they readied to leave, we hugged each other and went our ways.

This is not a story to highlight a generosity of spirit on my part.  It is a story to show you what a rusty heart looks like, one that is illustrated in the photo of my friend Jack.  My heart knows The Whisper and from where it comes, but the human side of me living in fear of the unknown and of connection has thousands of reasons not to act.

Every whisper that compels me towards the Light is met with resistance.  And I would love to tell you that with practice, reaching out becomes easier. But in reality, I have learned the battle never changes, nor does it get any easier.  The only thing that changes is that now, I am starting to recognize The Whisper more quickly, though I rage against it as I seek a path of selfishness and isolation.

Two people who slept on concrete in the cold welcomed me like an old friend that day.  They had no hesitation and no fear. They hugged with reckless abandonment.  And, as always, they taught me the poverty of my own spirit.  

Someday, I hope to have learned the lesson well enough that the battle is gone.  But that is a someday that, I think, awaits me only in heaven.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Someday I will be efficient...

Someday I will no longer have to worry about how the dishwasher is loaded. Being just a tad bit OCD, loading it up in "perfect order" has been one of the few joys of housekeeping. Like a master puzzle maker, everything sorted according to its size and shape, the goal has always been to use every square inch of space, in an orderly fashion of course. I tell myself that it is to "save water" and the planet in the process, but really, in a world spinning out of control, it is one of the few tasks that brings peace and order to a chaotic world.

I lost that job when my 95 year old mom moved in. I did not lose it right away, but in tiny increments as her dementia has deepened. Though it was her decision to move in, for the first four months she "raged against the machine", which in this case was me. Hurtful things came out of her mouth, reminiscent of the less than affectionate barbs slipped into conversation throughout my life. But in those hard times, I made a conscious choice to just love her, regardless of the emotional climate. Whether it was that determination or the progress of her disease, something in her turned, and she began a transformation into a loving, gracious person, someone I had not experienced most of my life.

I think, though, that probably it was the dishes that turned the tide. Your see, she wanted to be helpful, and washing dishes was a joy from her childhood, so I agreed she could "pre-wash" them. She would get up from our shared table each morning after breakfast and totter as though intoxicated, carrying our dishes to the sink. Like a new mom, I would hover to make sure things did not get dropped. Then I remembered that broken dishes can be replaced, but stolen dignity could not. It was a lesson I would have to learn over and again.

What started out as a quick rinse has now, as she progresses in her decline, become a ritual that grows each day.  "I am going to do the dishes now," she announces, and I remove myself to let her do it all by herself. Many mornings, I have sat and watched her stare out the window lost in thought, and I wait for her inspiration to return for the task at hand. Then an inner light switches on and she shuffles over to the sink, dishes shaking like small buildings in an earthquake, her slow almost crablike walk creating an arrhythmic thump on the tile floor. Then the water is turned on and I hear the dishes being washed one at a time and set on the sink floor. A few moments will pass, and then she turns the water on and washes them again, not out of cleanliness but forgetfulness. My teeth no longer grind as I listen. It is just water. And she is happy.

Every day when finished, she comes in and proudly announces the dishes are done. Often she takes my hand and leads me into the kitchen, unaware that I have been surveying her work from a distance, watching her glide like a manta ray on the ocean floor over the counters looking for things to wash and organize. "I don't know what we would do without you,” I tell her every time. Her face shines like a schoolgirl who has just passed an important exam. She has meaning in her life now.

The newest wrinkle is now a towel gets placed on the counter, and she creates a little pocket to put the silverware in and then places the washed dishes on the remaining towel. Yesterday I opened up the cupboard and found the "washed dishes" - traces of breakfast still intact on the sides, neatly stacked. I think to myself, "It is time to teach her how to load the dishwasher."

We all worry so much about legacy, or maybe it is just me, wanting it to be something deep and meaningful. But this, after 95 years, is hers. She washes dishes....with great tenderness and great love. It is her act of sacrifice, done for me, the daughter she has come to love openly as we wander through this journey to the end of her life.

Someday, I will be efficient and save water and do my little organizing task with great planning and orderliness, and the sound of her shuffling across the floor and the rattle of dishes will be only a memory that haunts this house. But today, I will teach her how to load the dishwasher. It will be messy and chaotic and will, in all likelihood, turn a five minute task into an hour long ordeal. But in the end, what we will have together is something better than order... 

We will have love made visible in the chaos...    


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Someday I will sing out loud ...

Someday I will sing out loud like no one is listening, even when they are.  And when I do, I will remember the young man at Michael's craft store who taught me my first awkward notes.

Trying to tack a quick shopping trip unto the end of a long day, I was already busy thinking about what awaited me at home, trapped in that internal frantic making of "to-do" lists.    As I rounded a corner at full tilt, I could hear someone singing very loudly and very off key.  Annoyed, I looked up to see a grown man-child staring off into some other world, a blissful smile on his face as he crooned some unrecognizable tune.  Next to him, a calm, motherly woman stood, ignoring the sounds and quietly shopping.

 Cute, I thought, through my throttled annoyance.  I had my list and the clock was ticking, so I murmured some quick pleasantry to his mom and moved on, face tight and focused.

 But it seems I could not get away from that song.  I could not see the young man, but his voice filtered back to the picture frames and curled around the DIY projects and resounded through the clearance aisles. And, as luck would have it, his voice was right behind me, singly loudly and off key, in the line that snaked far too long past the lone checker available to us all.  This was going to be a long, loud wait.

 Patience is not my gift, but in an attempt at self-improvement, I made myself turn around to engage with his mom.  As he roared into song again, something in me wanted to help her know that this singing was a beautiful thing, even if I was having a difficult time feeling that way today.

 So I joined him.  I just followed his meandering voice and for a few moments sang as loudly and as off key as I could with him.

 He stopped perplexed.  In an inarticulate voice I heard him as he turned to his mom.

 "What is she doing?" he asked,  a small look of panic in his eyes.

 "She's singing WITH you," mom said as she smiled at him.

 He looked at me, his eyes a little vacant and turned away, and I finished my transaction and turned again to the young man.

 "Thank you for sharing your song."

 He looked at his mom puzzled. She gazed back into his face and lovingly said, "She liked your song."

 This man-child looked right into my eyes with unexpected clarity and maturity.  His voice clear and focused, without a trace of impediment, he held my gaze.

 "Thank you."  
Just that...and then he smiled, and his face fell back into that vague dreaminess.  But in those two words, here is what I heard:  

 Thank you for noticing me...for hearing my song.

 And here is what I hope my heart spoke back to him:  

 It is okay to sing out loud for no reason.  It is okay to let go of the rush of life and participate in small moments of joy.  It is okay to lift your voice simply because you can, because you are alive, and this breathing moment is the only one we are guaranteed.

 Someday, my breathing moments will be gone, as they will for all of us.  For the ones I have left, I hope to let go of the tyranny of worry and rush and remember this:  Dance, as the poster says, as if no one is watching.   Sing out loud as if no one is listening.  And in your impatient, I-don’t–have–time-for-this moments, push pause...look deeply...and simply say,
Thank you.




Friday, October 24, 2014

The Harmonica

In my teen years, I called to let her know when I would be late.  As a young woman experiencing independence and testing my wings far away from the safety of the net, weekly calls signaled to a mother far away that I was safe in the world.  Through failed relationships, last minute moves, rare moments of a settled state and stories shared of grandchildren's triumphs and disappointments, the phone call home has been a ritual, sometimes welcomed, sometimes dreaded for its expectedness.

Perhaps mothers never mean to sound disappointed in the frequency or duration of the calls.  Perhaps they simply share information, like a weatherman who simply states, “Today it will rain,” because there are clouds in the sky.  But somehow, even the simplest statement of, "I haven’t talk to you in awhile…" seems as laden with potential guilt as an upswept Bosnian mind field.

So, over the years, through the updates on various illness and aches and pains as my mother has grown to accept her aging, I have tested rituals to help myself stay calm during these calls with varying degrees of success.  Breathe deeply, I tell myself.  It probably means nothing, when I anticipate her disappointment of yet more plans cancelled.

She is 82 now, and I approach my fifties with an eager anticipation of the joys of midlife and with some trepidation of her advancing years.  We joke that at 110, she will still be saying, "We really should take another road trip before it is too late."  But in my heart I know that her days, as for us all, are numbered.  And that one day, there will be no phone call to both dread and welcome.

I am reminded of this today when she calls, excited as a teenager with a first prom date, to tell me the good news that her sister in Germany, who has not written in years, finally sent a four page letter.  Her voice is so bright that I can actually hear the shine in her eyes that sets her so far apart from others her age…that absolute enthusiasm for life and eagerness to literally suck the marrow out of every moment.

In the midst of translating from German to English the words of her prodigal sister,  she remarks that she needs to find a new harmonica.  It seems she has been sitting in her chair playing her old harmonica, the one with only one octave, for her parakeets.  "They are very mystified," she tells me with the glee of an elementary student on a field trip.  "Do you want to hear me play?"

Stifled in my grown-up ness, I almost stumble and fail to honor the moment.  But then I recall those selfless moments when she eagerly came to my elementary concerts, or suffered my 3 a.m. wake-ups when a new song would appear in my mind, and I would walk over in the middle of the night to play it from her.

"I would love to hear it…" I manage to spit out, and I hear her lay down the phone as she bumps across the room to grab the old harmonica and bring it to the phone.  In only a moment she is playing the chorus to some German hymn from her childhood and the notes rift across the lines and across the years.  "I can play Street of Laredo.  Want to hear that?"

I listen again as she plays the songs of my childhood, wishing with every fiber of my soul that I could record those songs for the times when I would long have her here to call.  It is one of those times when you wish with all of your soul you could freeze the moment and hold it forever in your heart, to honor and remember this indomitable spirit that gave you life.

She plays on in the company of parakeets.  Twenty miles away, connected by the invisible notes traveling through space and time, I sense her joy at living and weep alone on my couch for the loss to the world when she passes on.

 "What do you think?" she asks as the notes fade, and I can only stammer a response through a throat choked by a paroxysm of tears.  I remember all those times when I didn't want to talk, all those times when it seemed such a bother to take ten minutes out of my busy life and just listen patiently to her stories…all those times when I wished for her silence.   In that instant between the question and the grasping for words to speak, it hits me that soon there will be a time when I would give up anything just to hear her voice again.

"Call me any time you want, Mom" I hear myself say.  "I love to hear the sound of you playing that harmonica." 
Call me… any time you want.
Published February 2008  in  Journeys of Love: Voices of the Heart -   (Paperback)     

Friday, July 4, 2014

Dancing with Elephants

Someday I hope to become better at dancing with elephants.  This is an important skill because they are everywhere: in the center of a family gathering when that "friendly relative" acts out because of the disease of alcoholism and everyone looks the other way; in the parent lashing out in anger and breaking the heart of a young child because that is all he knows how to do; in the kitchen with a wife who stands silent because to acknowledge the elephant is too painful.

But I can no longer sit and stare at the elephant before me, and I want to not only acknowledge it, I want to accept its invitation to dance.  For this elephant is present in every life at every waking moment, and none of us know of its existence until the sudden phone call, the hard words spoken at the doctor's office, the unknown now known and placed before us---Death.

When my mother and I climbed back into my van following her doctor's appointment to determine the cause of a large lump in her chest, the elephant was there waiting.  Small talk tried to invade our space; false comfort tried to creep in.  The same voice that spoke in my head about finishing my dinner because of all the hungry children in China now accused me that to lose someone who had lived to 94 was somehow a blessing, as though there were some magical age when losing a loved one didn't matter.

This was an elephant I did not want to acknowledge, but it was sitting in the back seat staring at me in the rear view mirror, silent and waiting.  I took a deep breath and turned to my mom, who is hard of hearing. "Is there anything you did not understand about what the doctor said?"
Mom asked a few medical questions and I clarified as best I could.  Then I swallowed and asked the question on the elephant's mind. "Are you afraid of anything?" 
She was quiet for a moment. "I am not afraid of dying," she said, "but I don't want it to hurt."

There it was.  The elephant breathed.
"Marijuana is legal in Washington State," I answered, " and I make great brownies."  I do not know what made me crack a joke, but I have been doing that with my mom for the forty six years since my dad was killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver.  It is my job in the family, one that I have mastered.  Our family joke is that the shortest book in human history is called Four Hundred Years of German Humor.  For years, mom, who is an immigrant from Germany, did not get the joke.  But over the years, she has learned the nuances of American humor, and I am comforted by what passes for a belly laugh.

I remember that when I was about eleven, mom came home from Germany with a stuffed white elephant as a gift.  When I asked her from the back seat of the car why she brought a white elephant, my dad answered, "it is the damaged car in a used car lot that no one wants."

He meant it another way, but today I think he was right.  No one wants this white elephant, and yet all of us live with it every second of our lives.  We labor under the illusion that we have all the time we need to dream and plan, and yet there it is standing in the corner of every experience we will ever enter.

And so, I decided today that I want to dance with the elephant.  I want to embrace it fully and surrender to the lessons I am supposed to learn.   The "what if's" in this situation would fill a universe, and so I am learning to breathe in deeply when one bangs at my door, and I release it to the unknown future.  I am learning to stare at the Light that illuminates only the step in front of me and plan no further ahead.  I am learning to follow the lead of the Author and Perfector of my faith, the One who carefully plans each invisible step. 
For in the certainty of death, there exists the uncertainty of the timing, and so I have to learn that the only moment I can live in is the one happening right now as I write these words.

And in the process,  I am learning to dance.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Someday...the Last Dance

Someday I hope to be able to trace the route that bitterness  takes when it flees from a soul and takes up residence in a place that contains more fertile ground.  For years, that most fertile ground was tilled in my own heart's soil which was rich with memories of childhood scars.  Over the years, a garden grew that produced its own bitter fruits which I routinely fed upon in the absence of other sustenance.  Absence did not make the heart grow fonder; it deepened the bitterness.  Presence, oddly enough, began the process of creating a different soil from which compassion could grow.

In these last few days, there is no corner of my heart that contains even a shadow of that nearly a lifetime of bitterness.  My 94 year old mom and my daughter and grandchildren have been experiencing her favorite hot springs resort in Canada.  Everything is a "just one more time" experience for her.  She hobbles to the hot pools, and while part of me worries every second about the safety of any step she takes, another part of me knows that this journey is important to her, to her sense of purpose and place in this life.  Her skin is paper thin and her balance awkward.  She is good for only nine stairs at a time, but it is still nine.  Her vision is mostly gone, but she still tells me to tie my shoes so I don't trip.  Her memories of what we have done or not done here are a kaleidoscope of various adventures we have shared over the twenty plus years we have been traveling together.  She is here, fragile and a bit confused, but she is here.  And I am filled with gratitude.

On our last night, we go to the Copper Room.  This resort dancing hangout's  band, The Jones Brothers,  has been playing  old favorites for over 20 years  while mostly aged dancers glide around the dance floor like teenagers, smooth and silky. Our littlest great granddaughter, transfixed by live music, conducts the orchestra from the chair as dancers swirl past.  My mom leans over and tells me that on a night like this, her boyfriend and she danced the night away, she in a red dress and heels that he said made her look like a fairy princess.  She tells me that when she walked back to her hotel, she heard that war had been declared, and she listened to the beat of horses' hooves on the cobblestones as a nation headed for war with America. 

I watch her face as she watches the dancers through eyes almost devoid of vision and wonder of the memories that must swirl in her head.  I think about my father, the love of her life gone now for almost fifty years; she has been so strong and independent and resolute in the face of life's difficulties.  Nearly every moment of this trip has filled me to tears.  Life, precious life, has kept her here long enough for me to heal, and in the absence of old resentments, deep love has taken root and flourished.

Perhaps these last few days have been so poignant because in dressing her the first day, I discovered something that has escaped her aging attention.  A very large growth has taken residence in her chest.  I see it; I palpitate it.  It is hard as stone and terrifying.  When I mention it to her as calmly as I can, she shrugs it off as though I had asked her about an insignificant mole.  Perhaps it is best that way.  And so we have been having mini adventures with her head free from worry and my heart overwhelmed by the thought of what road might lay ahead.

It is 1 am.  She may forget her medications at times, but she remembers as she stumbles back from the bathroom feeling the wall for support that she needs to close the door so the light does not keep me awake.  When I see her struggling with the covers, I get up and tuck her in.  Her face is beautiful in the soft light.  I whisper in her ear, "You are the best mom ever."

I think back to our leaving the restaurant tonight...how she longed for one last waltz, sure that she still had it in her.  As we entered the lobby, the strains of the music following us out, I took her in my arms and we danced.  "You have to let me lead," I tell her.  She answers that all her dance partners have told her that and laughs.  On her way out the door, she tells us all, "This has been my best visit ever."

I am undone.

Time waits for no man and death awaits us all.  It should comfort me that these last twenty years of caring for her in some way or another have healed my heart and hers.  She has become the mother I had always dreamed of in my childhood.

And so, in these early morning hours, I sit and type and hear the rustling of the covers as she seeks sleep.  I think, perhaps, it is time to move over and give her a snuggle, knowing that the gesture will open the door to conversation and a flood of memories of 94 years of living.

Or perhaps I will just let her sleep, and I will sit in my solitary sorrow contemplating the nights that will lay ahead...

Whatever the choice, I know with certainty that this road contains only love, forgiveness and compassion, and I ask for God's strength to have at least a modicum of the courage she had shown in living out this precious gift of life. 

And in this, her final dance, I will let her lead as the last song plays out, as she has always done.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Someday, I want to get Stephen Colbert and an elephant keeper in the same room...

Someday, I want to get Stephen Colbert and an elephant keeper in the same room together and thank them.  At first glance, a video of Stephen Colbert arguing with the logic of a Christian author and a video of a former circus elephant being released into the wild might not seem like they have much in common. But by some chance convergence I ended up watching them both on nearly the same day, and their stories so complemented each other that I came away with a deeper understanding of my own faith.

Stephen had a self-avowed "Christian theologian" who had written a book exposing the supposed "conspiracy" of the writing of the Gospel accounts.  None of his "ground breaking news" was new, and his shoddy conclusions showed a lack of understanding of the most basic of good research regarding primary source documents and how to determine the veracity of eye witness accounts. Colbert, however, did not travel the road of the Christian apologist; he took the road Jesus would have taken: he told a parable. 

Most of you are familiar with the story of the blind men and the elephant. Colbert relayed that story to illustrate the point that each Gospel writer had only a piece of the story. When he finished telling the story, he simply looked the author in the eye, a wry smile on his face, and stated with gentleness, "Maybe Jesus is the elephant."

Which brings me to the elephant video.  A circus elephant, aging and bone weary, was about to be set free into an elephant sanctuary.  Awaiting her, after a 26 year separation, was a much younger elephant who, as a baby, had spent time as part of the same circus.  In the video, the narrator explained that these elephants had been separated since those circus years, and all were wondering how they might react to each other.  You can imagine the touching scene that awaited.

But it is what transpired before the release that captured me.  The elephant keeper who had been caring for her gave her one last bath.  And as he held her aged and scarred foot, which she gently lifted into his hands, he ruminated on the chains that had been part of her existence for decades.  "I don't know who the first person was that put her in chains," he said quietly.  "But I will be the last one to take them off.  She is free."

The footage of her welcome by her young friend was breathtaking.  They embraced trunks and she leaned into the healthier, younger elephant as though they had always been best of friends.  If they had been human, they would have run into each other's embrace and kept kissing each other pausing only long enough to pull away and gaze into each other's eyes with love and gratitude that the journey had finally brought them together.

Then it hit me: this is how it will be when I meet Jesus.  I will run to Him like a long, lost, precious, friend who never forgot me and held me always in his thoughts.  I will rest in His green pastures and lie beside His quiet streams, my pain forgotten, my heart healed.

But before I do, I will have a loving Father and caretaker who will release whatever chains have bound me, wash me one final time, and announce,   "I know who the first person was that put you in chains, and I will be the last one to take them off.  You are free."