Singing In the Dark

hope

“So give me hope in the darkness/and I will see the light/’cause oh, that gave me such a fright/But I will hold on as long as you like/Just promise we will be alright”  –“Ghosts That We Knew” by Mumford and Sons 

 I haven’t written in a couple of months.  I haven’t really known what to say.  One of my defense mechanisms seems to be to feel as if what’s happening isn’t real, and I find myself feeling outside of the situation.  Like I’m looking on it as an observer, not a participant.  Then I go to the grocery store and see everyone else wearing masks, avoiding eye contact and looking somewhat grim, and it hits me again.

This is really happening.

I prided myself for doing “so well” those first few weeks after the gym shut down and everything else with it.  I work from home anyway, so leaving the house was a treat I gave myself whenever I had the chance.  When I’m at home, therefore, it’s easy to forget.  Just another day in my work day from home.

A couple of weeks ago I started to write something rather pastoral, because, well, old habits die hard.  It was so positive! I wrote about Easter and hope and faith.  But then as days went by, it all seemed to pile up.  The way I coped with anxiety and stress as a child was to push it down, put on a happy face and convince myself that it (whatever “it” was) really wasn’t that bad.  After all, there are starving kids in Africa or children whose parents beat them.  Inevitably after some time, the proverbial shit would hit the fan.  I’d break down– usually over something small that didn’t merit such an intense reaction.  I’d cry a lot, not even sure what I was crying for, or get so angry I couldn’t see straight.  For seemingly no reason.  But of course, there was a whole pile of reasons that finally got to be too much and burst open to say “Hey!  We’re here!  Time to FEEL!”

I’d love to say I’ve learned to do better over the years, but as much as I’ve grown in many ways, that is one area I still struggle with.  My mother was an incredibly strong person, but I also saw her when everything got to be too much and she “lost it.”  She’d let things pile up inside her until she couldn’t bear it anymore.  She thought that she needed to always look good, or to always trust God that things are going to be all right–and keep smiling.  She felt deeply, both the good and the bad.  Unfortunately, however, she taught me to “put on a happy face”, to “grin and bear it,”… until I couldn’t.

So I’ve taken on many of my mother’s characteristics, both the good and the bad.  Sometimes I feel like she’s trying to tell me something, as I find myself acting so much like her that I laugh out loud when I catch myself.  I hear her laugh in mine.  I feel her pain in my tears or my anxieties.  I feel her joy in doing something creative or in appreciating the natural world.

I’m glad she’s not here for the pandemic.  I don’t think she’d handle it well.  She didn’t like being cooped up her her memory unit anyway, especially after my father died.  She was not one to be told she couldn’t do anything or go anywhere.  The dementia would have only increased her confusion and frustration.

I’m only 54 and have my wits about me, and I’m not always doing well.  Like I said, I was doing “so well…”  I do have faith in God.  I do trust God to give me the strength and the resources to cope.  But some days I just get scared.  I’m not scared of dying, I don’t think,  I’m more scared of my loved ones suffering and/or dying.  I’m scared of losing what’s most important.  I’m scared of some of our leaders who don’t seem to care how many people die, but more about how much money they will lose or whether they’ll lose the next election.  It feels like a little kid might feel when the grownups aren’t acting right and the child feels like no one sane is really in charge.  Sometimes I don’t want to be the grown up.  I want someone wiser and stronger to tell me it’s going to be ok.

I’m afraid of evil.  I see it all over the place.  In the greed, the lies we’re told, in people taking advantage of the pandemic to launch scams and bilk people out of money.  I can really work myself up worrying about those awful people.  Like my mother, I find myself cleaning randomly or getting angry that someone left their socks on the floor– getting very upset about things that don’t really matter.  And I catch myself needing a “time out.”  Take a deep breath.

A friend of mine from college asked people on Facebook how their religious beliefs helped them, no matter their tradition.  I’ve been thinking about that.  Yeah, I’m scared.  Even though I have faith that God is indeed with us through all of this.  I do still hold onto the hope of Easter; that Love wins in the end, that Good triumphs, and that the final word on all of us is Life and Hope and Redemption.  I see countless strangers going out of their way to be kind.  I see the health care workers putting their lives on the line, even though their pay grade is shameful.  Obviously they are not doing it for the money.  They’re doing it because they are essentially kind and good people that feel the deep call to serve others unselfishly.  I see them go back again and again, even when their hearts keep breaking at the losses.  They keep hoping for another win.  My heart is lifted from the videos of the nurses and doctors clapping and cheering the patients who get to go home.  Because a win for one person in all of this is a win for us all, and the losses of thousands of strangers breaks our hearts a little bit more.

Two of my neighbors have posted encouraging words in their windows with lots of color and beauty.  It is hope I receive every time I go for my walk.  I see the artists and musicians posting videos of them reading or singing songs from their living rooms.  I watch John Krasinsky’s weekly SGN (Some Good News) broadcast, where he sums up a bunch of good news from the previous week.  They are mostly acts of kindness.  Some are just funny, injecting humor in a grim situation.  I tune into CBS This Morning almost every day to hear the news but also to hear the signs of hope and good news.  I trust those three anchors to smile and tell me what’s going right.

I believe that God is at work in ALL of those people, whether they give God any credit at all.  I don’t think God is so egotistical that God will only work through those who pay attention to Him/Her.  That Resurrection Spirit, Holy Spirit, Life Power, whatever you want to call it, that Creative Breath that moved over the dark waters of Chaos millions of years ago, is the same Spirit that empowers these everyday heroes to do what they do.  That Spirit gives them the strength to go back in there after sobbing in the parking lot after one more death.  That Spirit gives them the ability to offer love and a gloved hand to those that are frightened.  That Spirit brings together family members to the window of their elderly loved one, to sing a song through the glass, show them a puppy, or just let them see their loved one’s face.  To say, “We’re still here and we still love you.”

There’s a lot of crap in the world.  There seem to be a lot of stupid, selfish people around.  But if you really pay attention–and I assure you it’s worth looking– there are so many more everyday heroes who aren’t looking for attention or prestige or money.  They just want to help others get through this.  The people who put notes of encouragement in their windows, who write letters or cards to loved ones, who deliver food or medicine or masks.  After I had my earth-shattering cry from letting it all build up and wishing my mother were here and without dementia so she could remind me that God is with us all– I decided to look each day for small things I can do to help.  I love to write letters, and I miss getting letters.  So that’s one thing I’ve started to do; write letters to people near and far, just to say “hi” and “I’m still alive” and “how are you holding up?” and to tell them why I love them.  I wave to people when I walk to the post office.  I am extra nice to the cashier at the grocery store even though we can’t see each other smile through the mask, I try to smile with my eyes.

And after many years of not playing, I started playing the guitar again and singing.  Like I used to love to do.  But somehow, now, it feels more important to sing in the vast darkness, to chase away fear with songs of joy and hope and a little Elvis Presley.  I forgot what my own voice sounded like.  It’s nice to hear it again.  And I am reminded, through songs I sang throughout my life, of good times and loving connections and faith in a God who brings light out of darkness, life out of even the most violent and unjust death, and who empowers people to be sources of light in this dark world.

The worst and hardest lesson of all this is how to cope with having no control in almost everything.  That’s one of the most frightening and sometimes maddening things.  I think that’s why people protest and rage with stupid signs that say “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death” and “I need a haircut.”  They’re scared.  I get that.  Sometimes when I’m scared I get mad too.  I can’t control what the looneys do.  I forget that sometimes.  I can’t change the world and I can’t change other people.  I can only change myself.  I can only try to change my own response to this lack of control of pretty much everything.

Be safe.  Take good care of yourself.  Don’t let the looneys get you down.  Breathe.  Bring a little light to your corner when you can.

We’re going to be alright.

 

When the Living is Good

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It’s weird, sometimes, how you end up doing what you do for a living.  I often want to ask people in various jobs why they do what they do and how they ended up doing it.

I would say I kind of “stumbled upon” my current job, but I don’t believe that’s true.  I look at my life, and as they say “hindsight is 20/20”, and I see ways that I believe God has directed and guided me.  I confess, in this day and age, that language is tricky.  With religion being politicized so much and– I believe– misrepresented, it’s hard for me to use those words.  But I believe it.

in 2015 I was ready to leave hospice work, not so much because of how difficult the work is but more because I was disillusioned by the political chaos that goes on in big companies that are in the industry that should be above that.

I wanted to work at the local university, UNK, because if you work there fulltime you are eligible for free classes.  I’m always interested in learning!  So that was my primary motivation to scan the Want Ads for jobs at the university.  I don’t remember the title of the position that I applied for, because it was vague, as was the job description.  It wasn’t very clear what the job entailed, but it was office work, so I applied.  I got a call back (this is big because I applied for many jobs who never called) from the contact person who instructed me that I had to take a typing test online as my next step.  I learned that the job entailed some kind of transcription.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Divinity, but one of my strongest practical skills is typing.  I took Typing I and II in high school when there were electric typewriters.  I excelled in that class!  With the advent of computers, I kept up my skills in typing.  When I was in seminary, I worked for two of my professors as their office assistants, and part of my work was transcribing interviews that my professor’s class had done.  He needed it done for a book he was working on at the time.  I’d transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews on cassette tapes in between my studies in seminary.

I passed the typing test online– apparently I did very well!– and was called in for an interview.  That’s when I met Becky, who has since become a dear friend of mine.  There were two other people from the Disability Services office at UNK who participated in the interview.  It was one of the most pleasant and easy interviews I’ve ever had, mostly because I knew I had the skills, and as the job description unfolded, it sounded too good to be true.

I would be transcribing live lectures for the deaf and hearing impaired students on campus.  I would go to class with a computer, log into a link that the student and I shared, and type what I heard so the student could gain access to the lecture.  It’s a bit like close captioning, but we are meant to type “meaning for meaning,” not word for word, which is nearly impossible.  So that also requires a bit of mental sharpness and the ability to discern what is the gist of what is being said and provide that to the student.

I spent three months that summer training in the software used to do this.  I learned the abbreviations, letters and symbols to make the typing easier.  Had I known how stressful and arduous the training was, I confess I might have bailed.  There were many times I wanted to just walk out and quit.  Typewell is the company that provides the software.  Only after I passed the final evaluations was I told that in 17 years of the company’s existence, only 250-300 people successfully passed the training.

Yikes.

I had no idea that there were that many young people with hearing disabilities to warrant such a service.  The causes are varied;  some had diseases as children, some were born deaf.  Most of my students have some hearing ability and wear cochlear implants and/or hearing aids.  I confess to being amazed that there were teenagers juggling the stresses of college and classes without being able to hear.

I enjoyed being on a college campus and moving among the students.  I had all kinds of professors, of course.  The student is not supposed to be singled out, and so the professors were supposed to just act as if I weren’t there.  If someone asked why I was there typing, they were to say that I was just doing transcriptions of the lectures for them.

But there are all kinds of people everywhere.  I had more than one professor say from the beginning who I was and why I was there.  They named the poor student as the one who “needed help” with hearing.  I was mortified for them.  Nobody wants to be singled out like that.  I spoke with professors about that, reminding of what we told them before classes ever started but of course, it was already too late.

As most jobs that are in the helping/education field, the pay wasn’t that impressive.  Though I enjoyed the job and the people I worked with, it became clear that I couldn’t really afford to continue for any length of time.  Additionally, I learned that since I only worked the school year, it was considered part-time work and therefore I wasn’t eligible for the class credit benefit– which was the main reason I applied for the job.

However, despite that disappointment, I had found a new career.  I’d learned through my first year that there were jobs available in the industry that were “remote.”  Representatives of companies who provided transcription for the hearing impaired often called my boss to see if any of us had the time to sub a class remotely.  All that meant was connecting with students somewhere across the country via Skype.  We listened in on the lectures via the audio on Skype and provided the link to the student so they would receive what we were typing.

That opened up a new job opportunity for me.  I left UNK to work from home, as a freelance transcriber for a year before one of the companies I subbed for decided to hire me full-time.  I now work for Vital Signs, based in Maryland.  I receive an annual salary for 12 months, but work very little if at all during the summer.  I get the same breaks as the college students.  We use Skype and Zoom.  I work with students in Alabama, Michigan, Illinois, New York, etc.  Vital Signs gives me a schedule of classes for the week.

Again, I’m still surprised how many young people deal with hearing issues.  They attend public universities and take the same classes as hearing students, but with a significant disadvantage.  Thankfully, it is now the law to provide accessibility to all students, no matter what their limitations are.  Buildings, as you might know, have to be physically accessible for those who may be in wheelchairs.  But what I didn’t realize until I got this job is that accommodations also have to be made for anyone who desires to be a student and meets the requirements.  Including the hearing impaired students.

I love my job!  And yes, it’s stressful.  I’m not strong in math and sciences, but I transcribe those classes for my assigned students.  I don’t have to understand it, I just have to type what I hear as best I can.  For math, especially, that is tricky.  I am grateful for the fact that most math professors write down the problems they are working on, so I can just refer the student to the board in their classroom.

Other classes like Engineering, Marketing, Philosophy, Anthropology, Nursing, etc., can be more challenging, as I have to figure out the meaning of what I’m hearing it and type the essential points.  It can be hard on the brain!  But for a person who loves to learn, I get to be a fly on the wall, listening in.  If an English class is reading something that sounds interesting to me, I’ll go find the book or the story and read it myself.  In anthropology if I am interested in what was discussed, I’ll Google the information and/or the text and learn more.

I get some crazy images of professors, too.  This semester I have two professors in different classes that talk so fast they slur their words.  It’s more than the idea that they’ve had too much coffee, but as if they’ve inhaled a case full of energy drinks!  They stutter and stumble and hardly take a breath that I wonder how much the hearing students are able to take in of their lectures.  Are they nervous?  Are they wanting to get it all over with and go home?

Then the real challenges are the ones who speak fast with a foreign accent.  Those can be a nightmare.  There are days that I have to laugh out loud because it’s almost indecipherable.  But I do my best.  Just so you know, there is a very diverse group of professors down in Alabama– who’d have thought?  Indian, Taiwanese, Nepalese, Korean and French.  Sometimes I go for weeks struggling with certain words that they speak but emphasize different syllables than we do in American English.  It’s a great A-ha! moment when I’m able to figure out that mystery word.

Most of the time, the professor is miked.  We recommend that the professors have a microphone on their lapel so we can hear just their voices and not all the coughs, sniffling, whispering and breathing of students near a computer microphone.  There have been a few times that professors have scoffed at being miked.  “You’re going to type every word I say?”  Some of them were put off by that, as if we were gathering evidence against them.  They were speaking those words to all the students, we’d say, they are taking notes too.  But for some reason, some professors were paranoid about having their lectures transcribed and put into print.  Who knows what we’d do with that information??

There were those disappointing few, too, especially at UNK, that didn’t want to put on the microphone.  They couldn’t give a good reason why not.  Some said, “Isn’t that giving your student a distinct advantage because you’re transcribing the lecture for them??”  No, we’d explain.  They’re already at a disadvantage because they can’t hear as well as the other students.  “Yeah, but…” Or some were even stupid enough to suggest they go to classes that were specifically FOR hard of hearing students.  Like… where?  I was often put off by the arrogance and insensitivity of these overeducated professors who didn’t seem to know basic common kindness.

The fun times were when they relaxed and were themselves and “forgot” I was there and either cussed (because they think that makes them “cool” to the students) or said something a bit controversial.

“Don’t type that,” they’ll say to me.

But of course I do, because that’s my job.

Sometimes the student in my remote classes will let them know who I am, by giving them my name for some reason, and so even remotely, the professor will say, “Oh shit, Peggy, don’t type that..”  And I just laugh.  And type.

I’ve received a bit of notoriety among my colleagues because many of us have wondered if we’d ever experience a professor forgetting to turn off the microphone while in the restroom.

I have.  It happened twice, actually, with the same professor.  He never knew.  I heard… everything.  I was embarrassed, even though I was in the privacy of my home office.

I didn’t type anything.

My only regret is that I don’t really know my co-workers, though occasionally we’ll team-transcribe a longer class together, taking turns typing every 30 minutes.  We haven’t met face to face, most of us, and we don’t know what each other looks like unless we provide a picture for our Skype profile.  But on class breaks or while waiting on the student to arrive, we’ll “chat” through Skype messaging.  We compare notes on what is challenging or stressful for us in the job, we’ll share stories of ridiculous professors, and sometimes we even share comfort.  This past year when I lost both of my parents, I had two coworkers who lost a parent.  It was comforting to connect with someone who knew.  Last week I celebrated a student who missed class because her dog gave birth!  She sent me a picture of the puppy and kept me up to date.

Most students don’t “talk” to me much except for “hey” or “I’m not in class today,” or “thanks for the help!”  So it’s especially fun that I have one male student that I’ve been with consistently for four semesters now.  He logs in early, asks me how I am, tells me how he is.  He’s engaged.  They’re going to get married in November 2021.  She goes to school in another state, so sometimes he drives up to see her at school.  He calls me “ma’am” and thanks me every day for helping him.  He apologizes profusely when his computer isn’t working properly or the WiFi in a certain building isn’t strong.  I’m going to miss him when he disappears from my computer screen someday and goes off to get married.

I am grateful for my job, which suits me in my later working years and will suit me for when my husband Larry finally retires (he’s tried it twice).  I love learning.  I love “hearing” for someone else that can’t hear.  I’m grateful to my typing teacher in high school who taught me to type at lightening speed and for my seminary professor who had me transcribe his interviews.  Somehow it all comes around.

Life is kind of funny that way.

 

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

love

My husband and I have been very fortunate in many ways, not least of which has been our health.  When they ask you if you will love, honor and keep this person “in sickness and in health…” my bet is that the couple is not thinking about what that question really means.  When you’re young and healthy and dizzy with love, you don’t think about being old together and all that comes with “old.”  People say that you shouldn’t feel bad about getting old because some are denied the privilege.  But I also know others who might say that getting old doesn’t always feel like a desirable thing.

Larry and I have been married for 28 1/2 years.  We’ve had good times and bad times, we’ve struggled in many ways with various stresses that challenged us as a couple as well as individuals.  So we’re pretty confident in our relationship at this point.  We’ve weathered a lot, grown a lot, learned a lot, and we love each other more than ever.

I realize how fortunate we are.

Larry has always been my rock.  He has one of those T-shirts that says “Keep Calm and Let Larry Handle It,” which I bought for him because he’s that kind of guy.  He’s the one who takes care of everybody else.  He always seems to know what to do in a crisis, or if something breaks down, he figures out a way to fix it.  He’s been a pastor, a hospice nurse and hospice chaplain.  Nothing is too gross or embarrassing for him to handle.  There have been times over the years together I wonder how I give to HIM, the man who seems so self-reliant, the one most cool in a crisis.

About two months ago, we were planning on going to Chicago to spend Thanksgiving with my stepson, his wife and daughter, but were “grounded” by a big snowstorm.  The Wednesday before Thanksgiving Larry was shoveling the walk when he managed to hurt his back.  He’s never had back problems, so he didn’t get excited, just took it pretty easy over Thanksgiving.  But that weekend, the pain increased and literally got unbearable, which resulted in a middle-of-the-night trip (while snowing) to the ER.

I knew it was bad. Larry is not a complainer.  It takes a lot for him to ask for help, must less ask to go to the hospital.  His pain that night was excruciating.

An MRI showed that he had a herniated disc that was  pinching a nerve.  They gave him some meds and a card for a local neurologist.  That next day–a Saturday– the neurologist called him because he’d received the MRI images and wondered how Larry was even walking.  He wanted to make an appointment with him for that following Monday.

Long story short, he scheduled Larry for surgery for January 10th.  This was the end of November.  Apparently this neurologist is a very busy guy.  But I didn’t know how we’d get through till January 10th with the kind of pain Larry was feeling.

I learned.  You just do what you got to do sometimes.

Pain became another presence in our household for those next 6 weeks.  They kept trying different meds to make it bearable for him, but at the end of each day he was confined to the chair and could barely move.  He had to keep working because he couldn’t afford not to.

Neither of us had ever had to experience that kind of physical pain before.  I learned a bit more about the vow I took 28 years ago.  He couldn’t sleep because no position was comfortable or even pain-free.  So he came home from work exhausted, dozed as he could in the chair, went to bed, got up and did it all again every day.

As a pastor and a hospice chaplain, I met many people who suffered pain day in and out. I saw the strain, but of course, I could leave.  I didn’t fully appreciate what they went through or what their loved ones went through who couldn’t do anything to relieve that pain.  For many of those people, there was no end in sight.  It wasn’t something that could be fixed or healed, but something they had to live with somehow.

I rely on my husband for a lot.  I realized that more than ever these past two months.  He’s always the one that people can rely on.  It took all his strength to get through each day just to make it home.  He was able to visit his patients, offer comfort, support and prayer, then come home and collapse in the chair.

I didn’t realize how much he does around the house, either, until he was sidelined.  Everything was just so much “more” than usual.

We’d started attending church again before this happened, but when it came to the day of surgery, I realized I didn’t want to call the pastor of that church.  He just didn’t seem like someone who would be helpful in that situation.  Certainly not someone I wanted to make conversation with for the hours while I waited during Larry’s surgery.

That made me wonder how many people I burdened rather than helped when I was a pastor.  I’d sat thousands of hours with families who were waiting for loved ones during surgery.  Had I asked them if they wanted me there?  Were they too polite to refuse me?  Did it help?

I packed up my backpack full of books to read, a journal to write in, my ipod and earphones for music, just in case there were crying children or chatty adults in the waiting room.  I knew what I needed to remain calm during the time he was in surgery.  It wasn’t another human being.  I needed space.  Books.  Writing.  Music.  That’s just how I am.

After I kissed Larry goodbye and good luck and they whisked him away, I settled into my corner of the waiting room.  There was a group of women even more prepared than I was.  They’d brought breakfast from McDonald’s and large coffees to get them through.  They had games to play with each other.  I saw several people who were alone like me.  Some had books.  Some just sat, watching the various people go by, or stared at the TV.

I’d been there so many times as a pastor.  I had a reason to be there, a mission of sorts.  To comfort, distract, support.  It was different to be the “loved one.”  I felt much more vulnerable and exposed.  I saw people sitting by the window with their loved one, then the nurse came out and called their name.  The one who was loved was taken back into the pre-surgery area and someone was left behind.  They, like me, were given a booklet telling us more than we needed to know about the hospital and its services.  There were crosswords, word searches, Sudoku, and even a few coloring pages to keep us occupied in case we forgot our own coping kit.  I watched people sit.  Waiting.  Like me.

We were alike now, all of us, because we were all Waiting.  Wondering.  Maybe Worrying.  Then an elderly woman came bounding through the waiting room with a big Labrador retriever, marked as a support dog.  The very docile dog walked up to each of us and sat patiently, as we pet him.  Its owner was probably a widow, I guessed, needing something to do, something to make her feel worthwhile yet.  Many such people “manned” the desks, keeping track of us and our loved ones, to know when they were out and where we were to go next.

I couldn’t help but wish that my mother had been able to find such meaning and purpose in the last years of her life when she seemed a bit disoriented by age.  She’d always been one who loved to help others.  But she’d been so confounded by old age and its seeming betrayals.  Would I be wiser when the time came?

The elderly dog owner seemed to brighten each time one of us loved on her dog.  And who can help but feel better when a gorgeous, long-haired, loving dog comes  to you with the gentle command, “pet me!”

We smiled at each other.  Others watched me pet the dog, I watched others pet the dog.  In the silence we were connected.  In our waiting we were similar.  In our vulnerability and confusion about what usually happens to “other people,” we understood.

There are good people in the world.  Total strangers holding a leash.  Or sitting at a desk and writing down your name so they can make you feel less afraid.  Tell you when it’s your turn to go into the conference room with the surgeon who has a little sweat line across his blue cap.

We are very fortunate.  Larry’s surgery was fairly routine, though for a 67 year old man who hasn’t had surgery since he got his tonsils out at 4 years old, it didn’t feel routine.  When he returned home, it was my turn to be giving him care.  Helping him take a shower.  Checking the bandage over his surgical wound, making sure it was properly taken care of.

I helped him get dressed.

There’s something very intimate about helping a person get dressed.  We did that for our children when they were little and a bit more helpless.  We did it, and it was part of the package of caring for our kids.  We gave them baths or showers and dried them off.  I couldn’t help but remember that when I had to do the same for my husband.  It’s a very loving thing to do.  Basic but important.  To physically care for someone you love.  To make sure they drink enough water.  Help keep track of their pain meds.  Put on their socks, or fetch another blanket.

Or soothe them in the middle of the night when the pain meds wear off.  Get up and get another pill.  Listen to their breathing — to make sure they still  are breathing– until they go to sleep.  Then it’s alright for you to go to sleep.

They don’t tell you about this part of marriage when you’re getting ready to get married.  If you’d told me I’d have to bathe and dress my husband someday,  I might have chuckled nervously, which is what I do when faced with something that makes me feel uncomfortable.  But 28 1/2 years later, I did it because that’s what you do when it’s needed.

I had to change his bandage, clean around the wound and reapply another bandage.  It was a tender, vulnerable thing to offer, to do.  As a 25 year old, I think I might have fainted at the thought!  But there’s something about doing life with someone for all those years, raising a child, dealing with stressful jobs, struggling through money stuff, buying a house, buying cars, traveling, making a life together– that makes it all so much more profound.

Let’s not assume that I breezed through this stress-free.

There were moments that I was exhausted, overwhelmed and thinking it unfair that I was not a Certified Nursing Assistant or Nurse, what was I doing this kind of stuff for?  What if I did it  wrong?  What if I hurt him?

We got through it.  He’s not ready to go back to work, but he’s recovering.  He is getting better.  Slowly.  Today we celebrated that he could tie his own shoes!  It’s not something he takes for granted anymore.  He can dress himself.  He got on the treadmill at the gym for 15 minutes and is now exhausted.  But he  did  it.

I have a new depth of respect for people who do this 24/7 every day without the promise of recovery.  I’ve seen people through hospice that do this for their  loved one until the end.  I’ve visited with others whose loved ones have a chronic and debilitating disease that won’t be cured.  Every day, every hour, there are holy people who lovingly and intimately care for another human being every day.  I bow to them.  God bless them.  I don’t claim to know what their lives are like at all.

But I learned that after 28 years of marriage, there is still things to learn.  There are new depths of love and grace and intimacy.  I love Larry more than ever, and I am grateful for this experience that has only deepened my love for him and strengthened our bond.  “In sickness and in health…” I said when I was barely more than a child.  It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak in spirit.

To love another person is an honor.  It demands everything of you.  It seems like a naïve thing to do at such a young age when you hardly know what life is yet, or the incredible demands that are yet to be.  It’s not like T.V. where everyone always looks pretty and no adults are wearing diapers.

I remember thinking in my 20s that I would never get old.  I thought I was so intense that I simply wouldn’t survive myself in order to get old.  But it’s looking like I might.  My husband will get old 13 years ahead of me.  And we’ll do our best.  And however messy it gets, I’m just glad it’s him I’ll get messy with.

 

 

 

 

 

The Garden

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Every year on this day I remember Donna, as this would have been her 54th birthday.  Donna and I met at church when I was 5 and she was 4, and we stayed friends all through elementary and middle school.  I moved away when I was 14 as Dad was transferred 80 miles away to a new church.  Donna and I stayed in touch as much as we could, but we both had big stuff going on during high school and into college that kept our communications infrequent.

Donna lived out in a small residential neighborhood in Fair Haven, NJ.  Her house was a two-story, chocolate brown house with an inground pool in the backyard.  The neighborhood was very quiet, with very little traffic, so I learned how to ride a bike on the streets around her house.

Donna was the youngest of 5 children, the first four of which were high achievers and extremely intelligent.  Her oldest sister was in her 30’s when we were children.  Donna’s mother, Eleanor, was a very active leader in the United Methodist Women and held offices in that organization, travelling to Africa and other countries for mission outreach.  She held leadership in the Southern New Jersey Conference of the UMC as well.  But she managed to be a very present and engaged mother to her two remaining daughters at home.

I loved hanging out at Donna’s house, not just because of the pool, but because of the food.  We always had pancakes on Saturday morning for breakfast.  For lunch, we laid out on the patio in our swimming suits and Eleanor brought us sandwiches, fruit on the side, and a tall glass of iced tea with mint from the garden.  Their refrigerator was always stocked with various fruits and healthy snacks.

Donna’s house felt safe, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood.  The backyard was sheltered by many tall trees and the garden surrounding the pool patio was full of a wide variety of flowers, all carefully tended to by Donna’s father, who was already retired by that time.  The pool was always kept immaculate, as was the patio and garden.  Donna and I became huge fans of Mac Davis, so we’d turn the speakers out the window of the house and play his music while we laid out on the chairs.

“I Believe in Music… I Believe in Love…You got to Stop and Smell the Roses along the way…” 

My mother made us matching T-shirts that simply said, “I love Mac.”  Mac Davis was not the going thing among middle schoolers in the 70s, but we didn’t care.  We did share a love for Parker Stevenson of The Hardy Boys tv show, and collected Tiger Beat magazine pictures that we put on our walls.

I loved to swim under the water in that pool, that shimmered with a blue diamond design.  I crawled along the bottom of the deep end, flipped over and looked up through the surface of the water.  The sunlight sparkled and played with the distorted images of the leaves of the towering trees.  I challenged myself to swim from end to end along the bottom of the pool and burst upward through the water in the shallow end.  When we had sleepovers, we always went swimming at night.  It was so quiet and I loved the darkness and silence on the bottom of the pool at night.  Somehow the water seemed smoother, silky.  Donna’s Mom always had a snack for us when we got out and into our pajamas, before sending us off to bed.  I slept well there, after a night swim in the shadows and some hot chocolate in a mug.

When we moved away, Donna and I called every so often, but of course, there were long-distance charges back then, and no texting.  We each got caught up in our high school lives and struggles, and sometime during that time, Mom told me that Donna had had a “nervous breakdown.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I’d know that she was socially awkward (who wasn’t??) at summer camp and sometimes got picked on and teased.  But something was wrong.  She’d been hospitalized and was then on heavy meds.  I was scared to talk to her on the phone because she didn’t sound like herself at all.  Like she was talking in slow motion, her words heavy, dragged down by pills.  She scared me then.  I was naïve and awkward myself, suffering from daily anxiety, and I didn’t know how to relate to her.  I was scared.

My Mom stayed in touch with Eleanor and kept me up to date on Donna.  She eventually got better, was able to function with better meds that didn’t make her seem stoned.  It still wasn’t something anybody talked about then, and I think my mother was equally scared and confused.  But I heard that Donna was doing better, leading a children’s ministry at church and the kids loved her.  She fell in love.  She and I talked sometimes on the phone, but not about anything too real, and didn’t talk about her illness.

During Christmas break of my senior year of college, Donna called me to ask me to be in her wedding in May.  As children, we often dreamed of our weddings, and promised each other that we would be in each other’s.  However, her wedding was scheduled for the day I would be graduating from college.  I was disappointed, but in a way relieved.  I hadn’t seen her for several years and I was still nervous about “how she was.”

But I apologized for not being able to be there.  I did feel bad, and we promised to keep in touch before we said goodbye.

It was during my Easter break, a couple of months later.  I was watching  Jesus of Nazareth on VHS and it was actually during the crucifixion scene that my mother appeared in the doorway of the den looking… crumpled.  She just stood there, crying, shaking her head.  I jumped up, scared, unable to imagine what in the world could have happened.

As I hugged her, Mom said, “She’s dead. Donna is dead! Her parents just called…” and she crumpled in my arms.

I didn’t cry then.  My father had taught me too well to keep emotions “in control,” with the assumption that feelings were in fact, a sign of weakness.  Three years previously, we’d lost a dear family friend to cancer.  My heart had been shredded, but after the funeral, whenever I cried, Dad said annoyingly, “What’s the matter with you?”  I learned to freeze my pain.  To not feel.

They didn’t know why Donna died.  And they never figured it out.  There was an autopsy and endless questions, but finally they had to simply conclude that her heart just stopped.  And no one knew why.

She was 21. About to get married.  Had started to find things in life that truly gave her joy and purpose.  She’d just had a physical and had been declared in good health.  Her wedding was a month away.

I did cry eventually, but it took a long time.  My first response was intense anxiety.  Donna was six months younger than me.  If she could die… for no apparent reason… then any of us could.  Suddenly the ground beneath my feet didn’t feel so solid.  Again.  The frozen sadness and grief from Sandie’s death 3 years ago mingled and meshed with this current loss, and the added terror that no one was immune from death.

I went through the days after the funeral doing what my family did best.  Put on a smile, even when your heart was shattered.  Look confident, even when your hands were sweating and shaking and you couldn’t catch your breath.  Look Good.

When I got back to school after Donna’s funeral, I had a dream.

I was standing outside the gate that opened into her backyard.  It was cold and cloudy.  I looked into the familiar scene from my childhood, except it looked so different.  There were no flowers in the garden surrounding the pool, but just dry, rocky soil.  The pool lining was gone, and beneath the still, clear water was chipped, cracked gray cement.  The trees above the pool were bare of leaves or any sign of life.  The air was silent; more silent than usual.  No birds singing, no buzzing of bees amid the flowers.  No music.  I stared into the barren scene, wondering what was wrong.  I shivered

Then suddenly, a figure burst through the surface of the water; a little girl.  As the water splashed around her, creating waves across the surface of the water, the scene changed.  Color.  The blue diamond shapes that decorated the pool lining shimmered below the surface of the disturbed waters.  Flowers filled every spot of the garden, bees hovered above the petals.  Sunlight sparkled on the surface of the now-blue water.  Birds swooped down from green leafed branches high above, singing.

“I Believe in Music… I Believe in Love…”  Mac Davis sang from the screened windows of the chocalate-brown house.

The little girl climbed out of the pool, ascended the diving board, and did a joyful cannonball into the shimmering water, laughing before she hit.  As she spit out water and splashed to the surface, I recognized her.  It was Donna.  As a child.  Her bathing suit was green and blue and white, with the designs of lilies.  Her long brown hair was plastered to her head as she emerged from the water again to take another flying leap into the fresh, clean water.

I discovered I was holding my breath as I watched the scene unfolding.  I felt peace.  A quiet joy.  My buddy.   I smiled.  Her joy was contagious.  She was having so much fun. I called out her name, but she couldn’t hear me.  I couldn’t move from my place outside the gate.

I woke up feeling like I was covered in pixie dust.  I couldn’t move for a few minutes, trying to hold on to the peace, the holiness of it.

It didn’t make the pain go away, of course.  When you lose someone close to you, you learn to live with it.  The loss becomes a part of you, something you learn to live with.  In winter, or in bad weather, the wound still aches.  But it gets better.  That image, that dream, became a gift for me, that I shared with others who’d lost loved ones.  It became an image of hope and comfort.  Water gives me comfort.  Color, flowers, spring, blue, music are all sources of comfort to me.

I don’t know all the intricate details of life after death, but I do know, from too much experience now with death, that I do believe in it.  I’ve seen enough people on their journey towards death now, to see their hope, their faith and trust that death doesn’t have to be so bad.  I’ve had enough dreams now, too, that felt like visitations. Presence.  And a sense that Time is human made.  Time for our loved ones is so different.  My friend Sandie died 35 years ago, but when I dwell in memories of her and remember the dreams I’ve had of her, it feels like I just saw her yesterday.  And what is 35 years to someone who lives in eternity?  A moment.

I know I believe in Life, despite, or because of Death.   And I believe in Music.  I believe in Love.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Start Over

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I’m not unique, I realize, in saying that 2019 was a rough go.  I’m not one to make resolutions because they tend to be cliché.  I do, however, have hopes for the new year, as I do for each new day.

If 2019 taught me anything, it’s that life happens.  No matter how healthy I am physically, mentally and emotionally, Things Happen that are out of my control.  When bad things happen, it’s not because I’ve been a bad person.  “It rains on the just and the unjust,” the Bible says.

I thought I deleted my blog, but somehow, it’s still here.  I stopped writing in September because I was scolded by a couple of individuals who told me 1) my stories/experiences weren’t true, and 2) I didn’t have a right to tell those stories.  With the death of both of my parents in early 2019 I was very raw and disoriented.  Needless to say, my nerves and emotions were right on my skin.  I let myself be silenced.  I was only gone for 5 months, and frankly, those months were good for healing, journaling, talking and getting perspective. I’m a writer.  I’m not professional, but I’ve always been better at expressing myself through the written word, and so says everybody who really knows me.

So I’m back.  I love to write.  I love to share what I write.  It’s a big risk, because I just want to share my thoughts and perspective on life, learning, grieving, healing, and trying to live well.  I love to read other people’s stories and perspectives as well.  I invite you to join me on this renewed journey in a new year, a new decade with all its possibilities for both joy and sorrow.

Stories have always been a source of wisdom, inspiration, courage and healing for me, and I hope for you too.  Feel free to follow me and receive notices of new blog posts in your email.  I’ll write again soon.

Meanwhile, I wish all of you hope against hope, light in the darkness, inspiration, renewed courage and much love in this new year and evolving new decade.

Peace,

Peggy

Our House

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“Our house/is a very very very fine house/with two cats in the yard/
life used to be so hard/but every day is easy ’cause of you…” -Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

When my husband goes back to his childhood home in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, he talks about how much the town has changed.  It makes his heart ache every time.  He tells me stories that I’ve heard many times but does his soul good to repeat, about what the town was like in the 50s and 60s when he was growing up; a fairly sheltered little boy with a crew cut and surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.

I don’t have such a place.  People ask me where I’m from originally and I say “South Jersey.”  I lived in Cape May Court House (for three days), Pennington, Red Bank and Woodbury during the first 18 years of my life.   For the last 14 years of their lives my parents lived in Mississippi, so I couldn’t even go “home” to them in my childhood state.  Visiting them was never “going home.”

Such was the sacrifice of Preacher’s Kids in the United Methodist itinerant system.  I was fortunate, compared to a lot of children, in that the longest place I lived in my life was for a long stretch of 9 years in Red Bank, New Jersey, where I spent my elementary and junior high school years.  A lot of PKs didn’t stay THAT long, including my daughter.

So it was a big deal when as a family we celebrated 10 years of living in our current home here in Gibbon, Nebraska.  We came to Gibbon 4 years before that, when I served as pastor during those years.  14 years is now the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my 54 years of life.  It is truly home.  

I was 44 and Larry was 57 when we bought our first home together, after having been United Methodist pastors for all of our married life before that.  Larry had owned a home during his first marriage and before going into the ministry as a second career, but I had never before lived in a home that was owned either by my family or myself until now.  We always lived in parsonages, houses owned by the church where either my father served or Larry or I served.

Depending on the Conference, most of the furniture was not ours.  I was very fortunate as a child, we always had very nice parsonages, and usually very large!  My favorite, as I’ve said before, was always the Red Bank house.  In Woodbury, we lived in a house donated by a very rich widow, which made my father very self-conscious the entire time we lived there, as it was in the wealthier neighborhood of Woodbury.  Our neighbors were doctors and lawyers.  Again, the choice wasn’t ours, we lived in the house provided by the church, and there it happened to be extraordinarily nice.  It had an elaborate alarm system that we never truly got the hang of, and set it off all the time, bringing the police to our doors for many a false alarm.  It got to be very embarrassing.

Most of the parsonages we lived in as a married couple were nice, but not all of them.  It was a joke among pastors that church people tended to believe that a pastor shouldn’t live in a nice house or have nice things, as they were “servants of the Lord,” as if we’d taken some vow of poverty.  Many parishioners and parsonage committees furnished their parsonages with cast-off furniture from the attics of church members.  We often got what they clearly didn’t deem good enough to have in their own homes.

There was a Trustees Committee as well as a Parsonage Committee.  The Trustees were mostly made up of men, and the Parsonage Committee usually all women.  The two committees, in our experience, had a difficult time agreeing on what was needed in the parsonage.  The Trustees never wanted to spend too much money on the house, when there were so many other “important” needs in the budget.  Sometimes the women on the Parsonage committee didn’t think the pastor should have anything in the house that they didn’t have in theirs.  

If something broke down, we couldn’t just call a plumber, we had to call the Trustees Chair to get the request approved.  We couldn’t paint the walls whatever color we wanted or get new windows when needed, or have the furnace repaired; without consulting the committees.  Therefore the walls were always painted boring, neutral colors, with the goal of matching whatever furniture each resident pastor would bring to the decor.

If the linoleum was curling up in the kitchen, it was likely to take months or even years to convince the committees that it needed to be replaced.  If the dining room set was rickety and falling apart (because it was likely out of someone’s attic), it was a long process to convince the church that we needed a new one.  Meanwhile, it was embarrassing to have guests over.

The worst one, of course, was when we were thrown into the situation in PA where the previous pastor was suddenly removed for sexual misconduct and the majority of the church was angry at the Conference.  The pastor had been there 18 years and hadn’t allowed any parishioners into the house in that entire time (except the woman with whom he had sex).  They weren’t educated on their duties of having a Parsonage Committee, or what the Conference required for the parsonage.  Everything was in sheer chaos when we arrived.  There was no welcoming committee.  No one painted anything, as is often done when a new pastor arrives.  No one put meals in the fridge for us to heat up.  No one touched anything up or even inspected the state of the parsonage before we arrived.

So they didn’t know that the previous pastor, in his anger, had  locked up his animals in the back bedroom, and allowed them to use the carpet as a toilet.

It took many weeks to get anything done about the incessant urine smell that permeated the house.

I should mention that the Gibbon parsonage– our last parsonage– had a garter snake infestation.  Any day I was liable to step on a garter snake in the living room, and one time Larry had a very large snake fall off the top of the refrigerator onto his head.  I wasn’t there, but to hear him tell it, we were lucky that he didn’t suffer a major heart event.

One of the many perks  of leaving the itinerant pastoral ministry was allowing my daughter to finish out her public education in the same school she started in the 6th grade, to give her some stability.  And also, to finally live in our own house.

It’s not a fancy house, by any means.  We didn’t have a lot of money to work with at the time, but we fell in love with it.  It was a house that the previous owner had purchased to “flip” before the market took a dive and he had to just take a loss.  Before that, however, he’d done a lot of restoration and renovating, and when I first peeked in the window, it was the new kitchen that cinched it for me.

For 10 years, it’s been home.  We have no need to look elsewhere, until of course we are too old to maintain it and need extra care.  It took me almost all of 10 years to get all the rooms painted, and in the spirit of my dear friend Karen, an art teacher who died in 2007, I painted all the rooms bright colors.  It was my way of not only having the joy of bright colors around me all the time, but also in a bold declaration of our homeowner’s freedom to choose something besides Ecru or Eggshell for the walls.

I am home, probably for the first time in my life.  It feels like home.  And it’s ours, most importantly.  When the faucet leaks, my husband fixes it and buys the supplies needed.  When the fridge broke down, we went out and replaced it without consulting anybody else to see if we deserved a new one or not.  We planted a garden that first summer, again, without having to ask anyone, and much to my mother’s surprise, I’ve become quite adept at canning various recipes and vegetables.

I didn’t go to much trouble decorating the parsonages as I wasn’t always sure we’d be there very long.  Many times when my mother helped us move, she decorated the houses with things she’d brought from home and therefore it ended up looking like her house– which is not bad, as she was very good decorator.  I  always felt that we lived in houses growing up that could have been in Better Homes and Gardens.   Despite her beautiful efforts, it wasn’t me.  It wasn’t mine.  But since the house wasn’t mine, I didn’t really worry about it.

My house.  Our house.  I did care.  I decorated it the way I wanted.  I chose prints and pictures that reflected what I wanted, and who our family is.  I’ve since added some pieces from Mom’s house, and arranged things as I saw fit.  So her spirit is a part of it still, even though she didn’t decorate this one.

I’ve always felt a bit homesick throughout my life, always living in someone else’s house, and never having a childhood home to go back to.  Or even a town.  Even my parents’ graves are a thousand miles a way, and not in a place that I have ever lived.  Maybe one can say that’s the way of our modern world, and maybe it is.  But Gibbon is now my daughter’s home.  As long as we are alive, we hope to be here or somewhere nearby if it comes to that.  This is where she grew up, went to school and church, and this is where we hope to be for the rest of our lives.  There are people here who remember her as a child, and who celebrate her successes as an adult, like family.  They remember “when.”

The older I get, the more important Home is.  A safe place to be myself and to know that I am loved unconditionally.  A place with a growing collection of memories, both good and bad.  My own house, that reflects my family and who we are.  A place to host family and friends without shame or embarrassment.  A place to grow in spirit and older and give thanks.

And its OURS.

Doing the Best We Can

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September 11th will be the 6th month anniversary of my mother’s death.
Grief sucks.

It’s not straightforward, predictable, or tidy.  Some days I feel just fine, thinking, oh, I’m doing much better, moving on! Then WHAM!  I wake up on the weekend with my bones feeling like lead and I can only move from the bed to the recliner.  All I want to do is sleep.

Or I’ll be putzing along fine, doing my day, and something as small as bumping into something makes me suddenly collapse into tears.

I would like it to be “normal.”  Ok, if I’m thinking about Mom, or remembering a good memory of her, then yes, ok, let me cry.  But this out-of-the-blue crying or mono-like exhaustion seemingly unrelated to what the day is… I don’t like it.  I’ve always liked to be in control.  I learned that well from both of my parents.

I’ve had many losses in my 54 years, but few of them were shared around my parents.  I was 19 when our family friend and second mother Sandie died from melanoma at the age of 39.  At 19 I was naive enough to believe that surely God would not allow her to die when I needed her so badly, when she had young kids, and she was a radiant, loving being that the world desperately needed.  It was a rude awakening that you can pray all you want with great energy and desperation, and still a precious, loved human being can unjustly die much too young.

I understood my grief then.  I slept a lot when I wasn’t working.  I cried my heart out, alone in my room, because we simply didn’t talk about Sandie’s death after the funeral.  When I started to cry during a TV show in which someone died, my father was annoyed.  “What’s the matter with you?” he said with some irritation.   I cried harder and went to my room.

Grief sucks.  Complicated grief really sucks.  I love my mother.  But I wish we could have been closer.  But she grew up in the 1930s and 40s on a farm in southern Mississippi.  Her own mother was a tough little cookie, and she had to be.  She wasn’t one to show emotion much, there was too much to be done.  She had 6 kids; five of them boys, and a husband who drank too much.  Mom said he was pretty scary when he drank. My mother grew up being close to a woman who was a sharecropper on their farm, someone with whom she could ask questions about girl-things, and share her feelings.  Grandma was not the type.

And so my mother did what she knew.  She did special things for me when I was little.  She tried to make gifts special and she was awesome at planning birthday parties.  But she wasn’t one to cuddle or share giggles, or answer questions about “girl things.”  We never talked about sex.  Once I became a teenager and young adult, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me.  I know she feared for me, being a girl, and the kind of trouble teenage girls could get into.

What I wanted with Mom was what I do have with my own daughter.  A safe place.  Cuddling and giggling, and talking about the things that scare us, anger us, and frustrate us.  We talk about what makes our hearts come alive. We share music and how it touches us, we go on mother-daughter dates, just the two of us, or share a movie night when Larry is away or working on something else.  Sarah knows I love her unconditionally.   I was determined to give her what I wanted as a daughter growing up.

That doesn’t mean we never argue or get mad at each other.  We do.  But we also know in the midst of such times that we are ok, and our relationship is intact.  She’s done things I may not have approved of at the time, but she knows I still love her.  And always will.

I love my mother.  I miss her.  I keep thinking of things I’d like to tell her.  When I hear about people we both knew and haven’t seen in decades, I want to call her.  But part of my grief, too, is that we weren’t able to have what Sarah and I have.  I realize, now, that she couldn’t give what she didn’t get either.  I know she did her best.  I know she loved me in the ways she knew how.  But there was a lot I didn’t know about her, things she didn’t share.  Things you just didn’t talk about on the farm.  You just went on and got done what needed to be done.

I’ve always wondered why I was born with a nature that wanted more.  That wanted sharing and loving and talking honestly.  Why did I become a person that wants to talk openly with the people I love, share personal stories, hug a lot, touch a lot, share how I feel about you?  When Sarah was small, Mom used to tell me that I told Sarah “I love you” too much.  I praised her too much.  I have simply given what I so desperately wanted.

For a long time I was angry with Mom for not being who I wished she could be.  Some people got angry with me for being so honest about her, as I’ve described something they didn’t see and I was ruining their image of her somehow.  We all present to the world an image.  And that’s normal.  My mother was someone else at church, with church people.  That’s not to say she wasn’t at all that person.  Obviously she was.  But with our families, and the people who are more intimately a part of our lives, we let that guard down, for better or worse, and what is under that image we present, is also a part of who we are.

Mom did a lot of good in her life.  She was a revival preacher before she met Dad in college, and according to my cousin, she had people rolling in the aisles and comin’ to Jesus.  She’d felt called during those years to being a missionary in some foreign country.  But she married Dad, and like a lot of women in the 50s, she put aside her aspirations and became his helpmate.

She was an awesome minister’s wife.  Of course, she didn’t get paid for what was a full-time job.  She had her own gifts of leading Bible studies, coordinating craft groups, preaching on Women’s Sunday, teaching Sunday School, comforting parishioners and doing a myriad of kind things for them.  Towards the end of her life, however, she wondered if she let God down by not becoming a missionary and fulfilling that calling.  I tried to assure her that she did a lot to spread God’s grace and love in the world, wherever she happened to be.  But I know it still nagged her.

I know my mother was proud of me, and that she loved me.  She let me know these things in the ways she knew how.  I, like her, found people (and lost people) who could give me what my mother couldn’t, but I never stopped longing to receive it from her.  And despite knowing that it was unlikely, as long as she was alive, it was possible still, to get those things I needed from her.  Now it’s not.  And that is part of my grief.  She was a precious soul who had a passionate, almost insatiable love of God and deep longing to be worthy of God’s love.  I’m not sure she ever truly believed she was worthy.

Because of my faith, I think she finally knows she is.

I’m learning to accept what she was able to give.  She didn’t truly know on this earth that she was loved unconditionally, so she couldn’t give that to me.  But when I arrived at her funeral, my brother gave me a letter he found among her things.  A letter she’d written before she had her stroke and got pneumonia, but was never mailed.

With the usual insistence that she was going home soon (from her “hotel”), she told me that me, Larry and Sarah were very important to her, and that she loved us very much.

I get it out and read it every so often.  And I thank her for doing the best that she could.  I try to do the same.

Moving On

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Many years ago, a sweet, well-meaning older woman went on a rant during a United Methodist Women’s meeting about how it was “obvious” that no one could be a Christian and a Democrat at the same time.  I swallowed.  I was already tired in my bones, wanting a completely different job that I could leave every day instead of being “on” 24/7.  And being criticized for every little thing.  I did not speak.

The Church Lady, as I always called her, who was always eager to start a fight, piped up and said, “Oh, but Rev. Peggy is a Democrat!”  All heads turned toward me, mouths open, as if she’d revealed that I’d had an abortion.  The woman speaking stared at me a moment, turned back to her audience and kept berating Democrats.  I pretended to get a call on my cell phone and just left the building.

I was nearing the end of my endurance.  It was still another year before I was able to find a job to save me from the well I was drowning in.

When I was a little kid in Red Bank, NJ, I used to sneak into the church sanctuary during the week, when all was quiet.  I can still smell the old varnish on the church pews,  a tinge of Lemon Pledge on the surface, the aroma of old pages, and hints of perfume lingering after the Sunday morning services.

I climbed the wooden steps up into my father’s pulpit, a white bulb that held him aloft, over the congregation every Sunday, making him seem somehow higher and holier than all of us.  We literally looked up at him as he spoke, his black wings waving as he gestured intensely over some psychological or biblical idea.

As a young child, though taller than most in my class, I could barely see over the dais of the pulpit out into the empty pews.  I reverently touched the linen cloth over the flat surface, where he laid his indecipherable notes each week, the color according to the season of the Church year.   I felt I was standing on holy ground, in a place where you had to be especially smart to stand.  I never imagined I could ever stand in such a place.  Nonetheless, I imagined the pews full, all faces lifted up toward me, entranced, listening intensely, all inspired and ready to take off on angel wings once I concluded the Word.

There was a whole lot I didn’t know then.

I did, in fact, get to stand in that place– though not that particular place (serving a church my father served would have required a lot more therapy than I could have afforded!)–for 19 years.  It was 10 years ago this fall that I left the pastoral ministry.  I hear there was a lot of speculation among my church members about why I did it, even though I gave some lame indications of a plan to go back to school which didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.  Some assumed it was this parishioner or that one that “drove (me) out”, and yes, there were a few that I wouldn’t have minded blaming for it all.  There were always those parishioners who would have driven Jesus to cuss!  I’m not sure I knew then exactly why I was leaving, but I knew without a doubt– just as I knew without a doubt I was being led to do it in the first place–that it was time to go.

Ten years has given me a lot of perspective.  Necessary healing.  Insight.  And hope.  None of which I had a lot of when I left.  What I did have a lot of was pain, anger, and a deep sense of shame.  A lot of that is gone now.   At the time, I felt like a victim.  I can still recite all the wrongs I felt were done to me by the denomination, individual members and church boards.  It helped to justify my leaving by reciting all those wrongs.  And those things did happen.  They were incredibly painful, and some were very unjust.  I’m still not sure I could see my last bishop somewhere without having an overwhelming desire to trip her… but I’m sure I wouldn’t.

Shame was the worst.  As much as I knew it was the right decision to leave, how do you walk away from a very real call?  It was a powerful call, a very real experience that was profound and life-changing.  It is still a huge part of who I’ve become as a human being.  There were always the stories of pastors who “left” and they were usually shared in whispers or with raised eyebrows.  If there wasn’t some obvious misconduct, then other pastors tended to wonder about mental illness or breakdown of some kind.  Of course we’d all thought about leaving, we thought about it all the time, but to actually DO IT… put something of a cloud over one’s head.

Ten years of moving on, trying new things, trying and failing to find a church to attend as a worshiper, and talking, talking, talking with trusted friends, has given me a lot of perspective.  And release.  I had to forgive myself for leaving, and forgive those who wouldn’t ask me about it, including my father.  I had to forgive myself for being human, breakable.  For letting some people down.  I had to try to forgive that Bishop who “treated me wrong” and also to realize that I was still as much a child of God with worth as she is.

There were so many reasons why I had to leave, and I’ve only learned some of them after having left.  And realizing what life can be on the “outside.”  I grew up in a bubble, the bubble of the United Methodist intinerent system.  Some people told me I had no idea what it was like to be a person struggling to pay a mortgage, afford a house at all, or just the many “real life” things that people face day in and day out.  That was mostly true.  I lived in a different world.  It was difficult to have friends as a pastor.  Someone else might get jealous.  You didn’t know who you could trust and where it was safe to talk about certain struggles.  I learned the hard way who not to trust, and all too often, it was the people who were in a position to be the one who was to “pastor the pastors.”  I lived apart from a lot of the rest of the world.  I didn’t even know it.

In the end, I just wasn’t cut out for it.  I needed to get some “real life” experiences, to relate to regular people without the set-apart-ness of the clergy robe.  Other clergy colleagues had lived that life before answering the call, but I moved from one parsonage– that of my father– to another parsonage.  Insulated.

For someone who always worried about what other people thought of me, being clergy was deadly.  There’s always someone who hates you or talks about you behind your back to others.  There were many who hated me just for being female, but I think I won most of them over.  There were others who hated me for not being the previous pastor, as if it was my fault the bishop moved them out and me in.

It was all Love/Hate.  The people who loved me really loved me, and the people who hated me, really hated me.  I was good at a lot of the parts of the vocation (we were told in seminary it’s not a job, but a vocation).  I loved preaching and planning/leading worship.  That was all my favorite part– Sunday mornings!  I could have left the rest of it to some other thick-skinned martyr.  I enjoyed sitting down with the little kids and doing children’s sermons and trying to make sense of the Christian narrative to preschool minds.  I was delirious with joy holding a warm, bundled infant in my arms and proclaiming his or her worth in the eyes of God, inviting the congregation to claim this tiny person as one of their own as God’s community.

Little introverted me came alive in the pulpit.  It was a call, a challenge, to be bigger than my little ol’ self, and somehow God gave me a gift to preach.  I knew that in my gut, and rode the wave each Sunday morning, feeling blessed, as if a dove had alighted on my head and said, “Good job, Peggy.”  I loved my people (mostly).  I was in awe of the vulnerable ones in a hospital bed, feeling unsure and scared, putting their hands in mine, trusting me to pray them through, to encourage them and put them in God’s hands.  I was honored to be called in when someone was dying, to walk with them to the edge of this life and see them off into the next.  To hear the stories of their lives being told around the bedside.  “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion,” said Truvy in Steel Magnolias.

But I was not cut out for the politics of the Annual Conference, the vying for churches on the part of pastors, the measure of success being how much money you could extract out of your flock to pay the Conference bills.  Some nights I felt like a lamb at a slaughter at Staff-Parish Relations Committee meetings, when some chairpersons felt it was their duty to find out what people thought the pastor was doing wrong.  At one church, I was reduced to tears and one large old lady said to me, “What the hell is wrong with you??”  (That was my second-to-last church)

I didn’t have the stomach for sitting on a church trial jury to judge one of my peers, and listen to other clergy assigned to the position of acting the part of lawyers, using the same manipulation and devious word-games to “win.”  And “winning” meant a clergy was de-frocked.  I also couldn’t live with seeing other clergy committing sexual misconduct but “getting off” by making a deal with the bishop– because they were “powerful” or “charismatic.”  I was incensed to hear parishioners defend a guilty pastor’s sexual crimes against someone vulnerable with “a man has needs.”

And I wasn’t up for being in the same profession, finally, as my father.  There was inevitably comparisons.  He had almost all big churches, big salaries, and outward signs of success.  I couldn’t seem to succeed with those criteria, and ultimately, couldn’t seem to make enough money to pay off my student loans.  It wasn’t in me to play the political games I saw others play to get where they wanted to go.  I was naive, I guess, to think that that’s not what it was supposed to be about.

For many years, I felt like a failure.  By the time I was offered a chaplain’s job in hospice, a gracious gift of a job and a place to “land”, I felt I was near an emotional breakdown.  I felt I let God down.  I felt like I let my parents down.  Even as I moved on with my new job, there was that underlying anxiety of having failed.

However, this many years later, I feel whole again.  Or maybe whole for the first time.  Looking back, I realize how much anxiety I felt 24/7 when I was a pastor, and was therefore unable to truly enjoy life.  I was unable to receive love.  The pastoral ministry intensified all my worst character defects.  It’s taken me almost all of ten years to let it all go.  To know that I am grateful for those 19 years of ministry and the precious people who trusted me with their hearts and souls.  To know that leaving was truly what needed to happen, to move on, to heal, and grow in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise.  I admire those who can do it for a lifetime.  And still hold true to who they are.  It takes a strength of character I didn’t have at the time.  Or maybe I just needed to “live” a little, and I don’t mean sow any wild oats.  I mean just be a regular human in the crowd.  Learn how to be in relationship with other regular humans.  Fight for what I believe in without worrying about the church ladies being upset with me.

And finally, just learning how to love and be loved.  To offer kindness.  To encourage and inspire others when I can, from the same level.  Ten years.  I am grateful for the journey.  I wish I could go back and tell that poor broken, anxious, depressed pastor as she hung up her robe:  “You’re going to be fine.  Really, really fine.”

Burnin’ Love

 

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Sarah Gene Michael-Rush and George Klein, 2012 

I can’t tell you where I was when JFK was shot– I was yet to be born.  But I remember the day Elvis died.  I was 12 years old in 1977 and the only image I had of Elvis at that point, was due to the often-cruel media’s portrayal of him.  At the time, the only impression I had of him was a washed-up, has-been, past-his-prime rock star.  I hadn’t realized then that there were a few songs of his I’d heard on the radio during the ’70s that I really liked.  “Kentucky Rain,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Moody Blue.”  I didn’t associate those songs stuck in my head with the image of the chunky guy in the white jumpsuits.

On the day he died, my family and I were vacationing up at our home in the Pocono Mountains.  My mother and I were doing a craft project in the living room when we heard the news on our little transistor radio.  I heard about how thousands were gathering at Graceland in the hot, sticky Memphis heat– and they were devastated.  Days later I saw that awful picture of Elvis in his coffin, on a magazine in the grocery store checkout line.  I was horrified.  It was one of many times I began to see how cruel the media was toward him.

My life moved on.  I rarely thought about Elvis again.  Jump forward to 2002.  I had an adorable, passionate 8 year-old daughter whom I adored.  One day she came home from a friend’s house where they watched the animated Disney movie, “Lilo and Stitch,” whose soundtrack, I learned, was all Elvis music.  For days afterward, Sarah was going around the house belting out “A hunka-hunka Burnin’ Looooove…” with great drama and passion.  We thought it was so cute.  Music has always been a very important part of my life and spiritual life, so I tried to encourage that in Sarah.  Music was always playing in our house.

For Christmas that year, we bought her a CD of 30 of Elvis’ hits, which included “Burnin’ Love.”  I had no idea that I was throwing gasoline onto what was then just a small fire.  Sarah played that CD on her cheap plastic CD player over and over and over again, memorizing all the songs, twisting and gyrating to the beat and singing along energetically.  It wasn’t long before the CD had to be replaced because it was literally unplayable.  She’d worn it out.

Five years later we were visiting my parents in Southern Mississippi.  On the way down through the state, inevitably we passed many billboards advertising Graceland.  Sarah stared out the window, begging us to go.  We said maybe another time. I think we both assumed it was just a cheesy tourist trap.   However, when we left my parents’ house several days later, we were a little stressed.  I don’t know what happened, but there’d been some family tension.  Larry and I decided to swing East as we made our way north, and head to Memphis.  Sarah didn’t realize what we were doing until she saw the sign:  “Welcome to Graceland.”  

I thought she was going to hyperventilate.  She was 13.

Graceland really is a magical place if you care at all for Elvis’ music.  I’m sure that was the day that pushed me over the line into identifying as an Elvis fan myself.  There’s just a sense of “presence” there.  It’s hard to explain.  He’s everywhere throughout the modest mansion.  We took the tour, listening to the narrative on the provided headphones, as we made our way through the famous house.  The best part, of course, was watching my daughter take it all in.  She was in awe.  Her face lit up as she wandered through the rooms.  I doubt that we learned anything that day from the narrative that she didn’t already know.  I stood back as she knelt at his grave and shed tears for a man who died 17 years before she was born.  Her sadness was very real.

She knew even then that his life was tragic.  How could it not be, being as big a star as he was, and often taken advantage of by people who used him as a commodity to make themselves millions?  No one sugar-coated his life story.  But the power of his music, his talent, his passion, and impact on music was overwhelming.  That trip changed her life.  She was an Elvis fan for 5  years already, but after that, his music, his story and his image were engraved in her soul.

The fact that his life was so tragic and that he struggled so much seemed to make her love him even more.  It added power to his music for her, and became the thing she always went back to whenever she faced difficulties or disappointments in her own life.   Her grandmother, Sukoo, made her Elvis curtains for her room.  She got many more of his CDs with her own money over the years, and built up her collection.   She read all the more reputable books on his life, and the bad news in those books never made her love him any less–only more.

Her love for Elvis became like another living presence in our house.  I fell in love with his music, and began to understand why he was such a powerful influence on Rock ‘n Roll and on other musicians across many genres.  I understood why the Church was terrified of him, and how Elvis’ presence could literally shake up a passionate heart, make them feel things they never felt, and get those feet moving, even if you had no idea where to move them.  I became an unapologetic enthusiastic fan.  Sarah and I danced often in the kitchen when his music was on the CD player.  If I noticed that Elvis songs were the only songs playing on her iPod, I could sense that maybe she was having a bad day and needed a lift and encouragement.  Elvis has always made her feel better.

Sukoo gave Sarah a silver TCB lightening necklace many years ago. She only takes it off to go swimming.

We took another trip to Graceland in 2012, after Sarah graduated from high school.   It was in August, so the humidity was very high and as soon as we stepped out of the car, the sweat pores opened.  It rained off and on that day, but that did nothing to cool things off, just made the humidity worse.  Since it was a Friday, Sarah knew that Elvis’ best friend from high school, George Klein, would be in the radio studio that afternoon.  She’d brought Klein’s memoir of Elvis with her, hoping to get an autograph.  We were skeptical.  We knew he started his show at 3 p.m., so we went over to the front of the studio to wait.  People were hanging around, but it wasn’t crowded.  Suddenly, a man came up behind us, touched Sarah on the shoulder and said, “I’ll be with you in a moment, honey,” and as he headed through the studio door, we realized it was George Klein!

Sarah started laughing a bit breathlessly, staring after him, looking and forth to us and the closed door as if needing affirmation that that just really happened.  I was laughing with her, and Larry just looked confused– it had all happened so fast.  Then minutes later, Klein came back out the door and put his hand on her shoulder.

“Now, what can I do for you, honey?”

It took a moment for her to speak.  But she finally found her voice and asked him to sign her book, which he did without hesitation, and posed for a picture.  He gave her a one-armed hug, and then went back to work.  We were still laughing and Sarah’s eyes were filled with tears.

Later, while on our second tour through the mansion, Sarah was watching a video of Elvis from the Hawaii TV special on a large screen  in the Jumpsuit room.  The walls were filled with memorabilia and several of his iconic jumpsuits were on display.  The room was hot, as it was packed with tourists.  I watched Sarah as she watched Elvis do one of her favorite songs, “An American Trilogy,” with tears trickling down her face while she smiled.

We heard the thunder outside as it was getting louder, and then suddenly there was a loud BANG! and the lights went off for just a minute or two.  As the lights came back on, there was complete silence until someone said, “Hey, Elvis,” and we all responded with nervous laughter.

I don’t remember the year we started the ritual.  But we are a family of rituals and traditions that may seem odd to someone else.  We have a habit of remembering our favorite dead musicians on their birthdays and death days.  It started with Elvis.  On August 16th and January 8th, Sarah prepares fried catfish, okra, and cornbread for dinner, followed by banana pudding for dessert.  All day long Elvis sings on a repeated circuit on her ipod speaker, from the time she wakes that day till we all go to bed that night.  (We do the same for Johnny Cash on his appropriate days)  That evening we watch one of Elvis’ many recorded concerts or one of the movies that isn’t particularly cheesy.  We’ve done this for years.

Over the years listening to Sarah’s music come down the hall, I’ve recognized Elvis songs that I overheard coming from my brother Don’s room when I was just a little kid myself.  Songs that became ingrained in my consciousness, only to reconnect many years later.  I’ve been known to spontaneously dance in the kitchen when an Elvis song comes on, or sing loudly along with him in the car.  His music has brought more joy and passion into our lives, and has become a significant part of the soundtrack of our family’s life.

All because of a silly little blue alien named Stitch.

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A Moment

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My favorite house of all that I’ve lived in was the house in Red Bank.  We moved there when I was just 5 years old, and sadly moved away when I was starting high school.  The house on Broad Street had three stories and a basement.  The top half of the house was red and the bottom half was white, and a porch wrapped around the front.  To a little girl, it felt like a mansion.  

I had my own room at the top of the long staircase that felt like it was designed for a princess.  The colors were blue and white, with wallpaper that was decorated with flowers and latticework designs.  All of the furniture was white, with gold flowers and leaves decorating them.  The handles were made to look like brass.  I had a full double bed all to myself, and lots of floor space to dance to my David Cassidy records and play with my Barbie Dolls.  There was a non-functioning fireplace in one wall, where I stacked my collection of books.

The basement of the house was cold, dark and somewhat dingy.  My mother tried to whitewash the walls to keep them from crumbling, but most of it fell off.  No matter how much she swept or cleaned, it was just a dank, dusty place.  To my friends and I it was a place of mystery.  We dared each other to sneak down there in the dark and walk around, usually running quickly back up the wooden stairs to the comfort of the kitchen as we screamed like only little girls could.  Venturing further into its depths, we discovered,  in the distant corner, a painted image of a skull and crossbones.  Beneath the image was a long, thick nail embedded in the wall, upon which hung– yep– a skeleton key.  We would dare each other to walk all the way into the darkness, to actually touch the skull image, which we did, before running back up the stairs shrieking like we were being chased.

Sometime later, however, when I was in early middle school, my parents purchased a ping-pong table and installed it in the basement.  More efforts to clean the environment failed.  But now we had a reason to go to the basement.

My father, it turned out, was an excellent ping-pong player.  Each of the boys and myself took our turns playing him.  None of us could beat him.  He had a wicked serve that was nearly impossible to return.  Dad was very competitive, in whatever he was doing, so letting me win never crossed his mind.  I kept asking for rematches, and as I played him over the years, I got better.  I began to be able to return more of his volleys, and learned to sometimes return his wicked serve.  Every night after the evening news, I begged him to play.

He still wore his shirt and tie from his day at the church office, but he was a different man in competition.  No mercy.  He loved to win.  I ran from side to side of the table, diving, reaching, jumping, screaming sometimes and sweating profusely.  Dad wasn’t the type to cuddle or have me sit on his knee.  He didn’t tousle my hair or kid with me.  He was very serious, always the preacher or counselor.  Always The Tie.  But for those moments, we got to play.  We had a small transistor radio in the basement that we kept on a current pop station as we played the best of 2 out of 3, which of course, Dad always won.

When we moved to Woodbury, the ping pong table was in the garage.  And we played.  I got better over the years, but couldn’t beat him.  We didn’t talk, except to announce the score as we went.  If we laughed, it was nervous tension, part of the play.  Dad and I weren’t close, he wasn’t always sure how to relate to a girl.  He felt more confident in his role as pastor and counselor than he did as father.  But in those moments, we got to play.  He didn’t give me pointers or tips, I learned simply by trying to return his hits.

Finally, when I was a wife and a mother living in Nebraska, it happened.  We had our own ping pong table in the basement and I challenged Dad to the best of 2 out of 3.  And I beat him.  Finally.  He was retired by then, in his mid-sixties, but no less energetic at the ping pong table.  It was a close couple of games, but I finally beat him.

As we went back upstairs he was a bit sheepish, muttering something about how he’s not as energetic as he once was, as I high-fived Larry and scooped up my baby daughter in celebration.  Mom laughed nervously.  I wasn’t feeling mean or smug.  I simply felt like finally I could beat Dad at something.  Or at least be as good as him at something.  He wasn’t the kind to give praise, so I spent a lot of years trying to impress him.  To get his attention.  It was a small triumph.

He got older.  We didn’t play again after that.  We lived 1500 miles apart and as we moved around, we didn’t have a place for a table anyway.

When I was at clergy retreats, where I never truly felt comfortable anyway, I found that I could at least feel less awkward when there was a ping pong table at the facility.  I beat all the guys, much to their surprise.  I sweat a lot, put all my energy into the games.  I never felt comfortable with all the politicking that went on wherever clergy were gathered, but give me a ping pong table, and I could stand out a bit.

I didn’t play for 15 years after that, as we never had a house that had room for a table.  Two years ago, I was eligible to participate in the Nebraska Senior Games, being over 50.  I’ve never been much of an athlete, but wanted to participate somehow, just to get out of my comfort zone.  So I signed up for the ping pong match in my age category.

I didn’t have anywhere to practice, so I went to the match without having played in 15 years.  It turns out being much like riding a bicycle.  You never forget.  I won a medal.  It wasn’t the Olympics or anything newsworthy, but it felt good nonetheless.  It was one thing that Dad and I had.  I can still remember the sweat stains appearing under his arms, his forehead breaking out in a sweat as he leaned forward with an expression of determination.  And the end, laying my paddle down, out of breath and sweaty myself, as I’d met every volley from one side of the table to the other.  And then the day I finally beat him.

Dad didn’t give a lot of compliments, and when I became a pastor, he liked to remind me that he was the better pastor.  But when I was a hospice chaplain and sat with many of the dying and the suffering, one day in an off-guard moment, Dad said, “You know, you’ve done things that I could never do.”  It was what he could give.

But it was even better than beating him at ping-pong.