I Don’t Understand

I admit it, I’ve been very naive.

I thought we were doing better. Much better. I grew up hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr. In 7th grade we watched the TV mini-series “Roots” in school. I grew up in New Jersey, and at least half of our student population was African American. I knew a lot of the “blacks” lived on the “west side” of town, a place where we only traveled through on our way to the mall. It was the poor section of town, what was called “the ghetto” back then. It was the 1970s. Blacks and whites didn’t mix much. Even in elementary school, we all chose to sit separately in the lunchroom. There was a little black girl named Ruth who bullied me all through 4th grade. She always threatened to “beat my butt” if I didn’t give her my sub sandwich or my cookies from lunch. Sometimes she followed me part of the way home and bumped my shoulder just trying to scare me.

It worked.

I admit at the time being afraid of “the black girls.” But looking back, they didn’t have it as well as I did, so they took it out on kids like me; very shy, very wimpy and nervous. White. She never actually beat me up, I never gave her a chance. I could run fast!

I knew there were tensions between whites and blacks, but it wasn’t a big part of my world. My father had a deep tan, being half-Indian from India, and had an Indian British accent which made it clear he was “not from around here.” People always asked, “where are you from?” He didn’t like being “different.” He wore long sleeve shirts and pants to the beach, topped off with a ridiculous wide brimmed hat– all to avoid getting any darker than he already was. I never thought about it at the time. I thought it was weird he was so worried about getting darker when I would have LOVED to be able to tan!

When we made our pilgrimages to Mississippi every couple of years to see my mother’s relatives, I noticed things. My uncles and aunts used the “N” word which was a word I knew was bad, even then. My Mom was worried what her relatives would say if they found out my brother was dating “a black girl” back home. We tried not to talk about it while we were there. But I was still free enough to be naive about the intensity of racism, both down there and in my own middle class neighborhood. For a couple of years before they moved to a new building, I had to walk through the “west side” to get to middle school. My friends and I walked together, and at times I remember feeling scared. To be fair, I was scared because my brother had attended that school 7 years before me and had had knives pulled on him on the play ground.

We didn’t talk about race or color or class growing up in my family. Being a student of history, I read now about things that were going on in Mississippi in the 1970s while we were blissfully eating watermelon and boiled peanuts in my uncle’s front yard on summer nights. I didn’t know why the “N” word was a bad word, I just knew it was. I don’t remember asking my parents about what I watched in “Roots”– we weren’t that kind of family. But I do remember it made my stomach ache. At the time, of course, I didn’t know that my ancestors fought in the Confederate war, that they owned slaves, or that some of them were actually slave traders. (Thankyouverymuch, Ancestry.com!) If I’d known when I watched “Roots” what roles my ancestors played in the slave trade, I would have been very confused. I would have had a lot of questions!

As I do now.

We didn’t talk about unpleasant things growing up. I think part of that was my mother being a southern woman. You don’t talk about those things. Confusing things. Or things that don’t jive with the image of Walton’s Mountain or Little House on the Prairie. One could say maybe we talk about it TOO much now, but I do wonder, is there any such thing? Clearly, talking about it doesn’t seem to change it a lot.

I admit that I have lived a lot of my life thinking that we’d gotten better. It’s easy for me to say that, of course. I was free to ignore a lot. I learned about the 60s and the riots and the race wars and felt glad I didn’t grow up then, that I was a toddler the year MLK and JFK and RK were all assassinated. I grew up in a better time, surely.

I was at a pastor’s conference during Obama’s inauguration in 2009, but I stole away from meetings to watch his swearing in. I could have fallen to my knees while watching, I was so overcome with the “miracle” of his becoming president. I saw all the crowds in DC, the weeping African Americans, the joy and history of that day. I felt it, and I was proud of America. I had no idea about the intensity of the backlash that was to come, the strengthening of white supremacist groups and neo-Nazis. I heard about things, but it wasn’t until the rise of Trump that I was shocked into seeing it.

Then George Floyd. Breona Taylor. And many, many others.

The Proud Boys.

You know the list of eye-opening events over the last four years.

Then January 6th, 2021.

I couldn’t feel. I stared at the screen for hours. It wasn’t until the next day that I fell apart. I cried and cried and cried. I felt like I’d never stop crying. I don’t even know what all I was grieving in those tears. I did grieve the loss of my innocent trust that we had done better since 1968. That we were better. The loss of my image of the United States as that shining city on a hill where people can flee terror in their own countries and come here to be safe. My father didn’t flee terror, but a troubled India that was trying to figure out independence itself. He described many times the emotion of being on the boat that drew closer to the Statue of Liberty, discovering his new home.

I grieved for my country that I am proud of for being a place that people come seeking a new opportunity. This is not supposed to be who we are. The realization that as a white middle class person I have had the luxury of being naive for much of my life.

I grieved for the Church that raised me as I saw signs of “Jesus is my Savior/Trump”. Or crosses being held up as some sign of token of superiority. I grieved and got angry that people storming the Capitol to vandalize, kidnap, take hostages or even kill, dared to carry identification as Christians.

I have no doubt Jesus wept that day too.

I guess all I can say now is that I don’t understand. I truly do not understand how anyone can hate someone else that they don’t know just because of their skin color. I, who grew up relying on the Golden Rule as my mantra through childhood before I studied deeper, can’t understand wanting to do violence against anyone, especially against someone who never did anything against me. I can’t begin to get into the mindset of that kind of hate. That’s not to say I’ve never hated anyone. I don’t want to hate anyone, but I tell you I struggled with my hate against Trump, and still do. He hurts me in the soul. Because he represents everything that I am against and that I believe Jesus is against. I find him offensive, immoral, cruel, narcissistic, devoid of compassion or any kind of emotion toward anyone but himself, and blinded by his wealth. I have hated him for how he’s given permission for this kind of hate and violence to show itself out in the open and be celebrated and empowered.

But I just don’t understand hating someone I don’t even know at all, because they speak a different language, participate in another religion, or have a different color skin.

I guess I don’t want to understand. Because I don’t want to be that kind of person. Ever. I’m far from perfect, and I have my “issues” and I have a list of things in myself I’d like to improve, but I hope that I never lose hope that we can do better as a people. That the shock of January 6th will make us so disgusted by what we saw that we strive to do what we can to do better, be better, to learn more, grow more, and just be the kind of persons we try to teach our children to be.

I hope.

Upside Down and Turned Around

When I was a little kid, I’d sit upside down on the couch, hanging my head over the edge and look at the room upside down. I tried to imagine walking across the ceiling, stepping over the lights and over the openings into the next rooms. The lights would be sticking up from the ground that I was walking on, and everything would be attached to the “ceiling” that used to be the floor. I wished I could experience that for real somehow.

This year has felt like that– like everything is turned upside down. Or sideways. It’s like we’re living in “The Twilight Zone.” Reality is no longer what we thought. And of course there are many who choose to live in the reality that they know despite all this, and sometimes I don’t blame them. The world is shaken up like a snow globe, and instead of snow coming down, it seems like the pieces of our previous world are coming down all around us.

There have been many moments these past 9 months– and probably after the first six months of this, when it seemed like this would never EVER end–that I felt like I didn’t know what was up and what was down. What was real and what was not. I get really really irritated with anything bordering on “virtual reality.” Or photos that are photoshopped to represent something other than what they were originally. Even “reality” programs, that aren’t really reality, because the show is orchestrated, scripted, and edited to present whatever reality they want.

I get irritated because I don’t want reality “mastered” or directed. I want to know what’s what! Don’t mess with my perception! Of course, we were more easily manipulated– so I thought– before the internet. You didn’t know what a bunch of whack jobs the actors who portrayed the Partridge Family were. I believed that they were all good people who got along and were similar to their characters. I believed that “most families” were like the Waltons–or should be!–and loved each other and gathered for holidays because they wanted to be together. I wanted to believe that everybody was basically good and kind and wanted that.

Damn you, Google.

I still want to believe the best about people. I try to do that, until of course they prove otherwise. I have to do that, or I’ll be so cynical and depressed life would be difficult to live. This nine months have shaken everything up and challenged me to really figure out what it is I believe.

Ok, I thought we’d come a long way since the 60s. I thought we’d made a lot of progress in terms of racial prejudices and equality.

Apparently, not so much.

I am a Christian. I love Jesus and I believe that following his way of life and teachings is a good way of being. I don’t do it because I want to make sure I get into heaven. I do it because it is the way of life that makes sense to me as a way of being in community and trying always to be a better person who is always growing. John Wesley said he was “moving toward perfection,” and I’ve thought that’s a worthy goal, though I’ll never reach it in this lifetime. I strive to be better as I go, and certainly try not to be worse.

My image of the Church has been turned upside down like a snow globe, and I imagine the organ, the pews, the cross on the wall, all those lovely banners on the side, the pulpit, the lectern, the altar, etc., all coming crashing down in a big heap at the bottom of the snow globe. I’ve had my share of pain at the hands of the church, mostly as a professional holy person, and the huge disconnect the Church can have in some corners, from the rest of the real world. I’ve seen too much hate and cruelty done in the name of the Church. I always saw it “behind the scenes,” of course, as a pastor’s kid and as a pastor, so I never really had a chance to be naive. Yet I was. And I got hurt.

I can’t go to church. I watch my friend who is a pastor, preach online, and I read the Bible and journal. I pray. A lot. But still, going into a church service anymore (when it’s been possible) is still a physically daunting experience. I can’t quite breathe or sit still or feel safe. When I met people there I wondered if they would like me if they really knew me. Not that I fit many of the “isms” that are out there– I’m a white, heterosexual, untattooed middle class female. I am probably able to be classified as a “bleeding heart liberal” by some, so there’s that. But I don’t feel safe in church. Not at all. And so I don’t go.

But during this pandemic, I’ve wrestled with my faith and what I believe. There’s a lot of cynicism– rightly so– about Christianity and faith and believing in an afterlife. I fight that when I see what people do in the name of Christianity. But there’s so much death. There always has been, of course, but now, there’s a single threat that is touching EVERYONE. Not just the US, not just Nairobi, or Asia or the Middle East. Every. Single. Continent.

It seems to me that that truth alone should make us realize how connected we are to everyone else across the world. We are facing the same enemy, while still facing all the others that are still real.

I honestly don’t know what God is doing in the Big Picture. I can’t answer why is God allowing this (or anything else that is devastating). Of course, there’s always that Free Will thing. But I do know what God is doing “on the ground.” God is giving people the know-how to put together a vaccine in a never-heard-of quickness, that puts the hope of an endpoint to this craziness within our timeline. God is in the ICU, in the doctors and nurses who don’t quit, despite not getting a raise or even a break!. God is in their gloved hands and their masked faces, in the eyes looking with compassion on the critically ill and touching those patients through paper and gloves. God is in the leaders of communities that defy all the death threats and put rules in place to protect their people, despite the threats from their own government. God is in the police, the good ones, who try to keep law and order when people go crazy and do violence. God is in the countless people packing boxes of food and handing them out to people who otherwise would not have eaten today. God is in my niece or works with the homeless everyday, despite not always being able to “fix” their problem. She does what she can with what she has to work with. It’s stressful– especially in a pandemic– and exhausting, and she doesn’t always see that she’s making a difference. But she does it because she thinks that’s what Jesus wants her to do.

I see God in the retail workers who have to deal with customers who scream all their frustration and anger into these people that have nothing to do with it. They treat these crazies with compassion and kindness because that’s what you do in a civilized society– and of course, they want to keep their job. I see God in the people standing out there doing those uncomfortable tests on people, day after day. God is in the doctors who are trying to figure out the best treatment for someone. God is in the many, many people who don’t get paid nearly enough for what they do in proportion to the work they do. God is in the teachers in the public schools and universities, trying to educate children through masks, via a computer screen, or trying to keep them safe in person. In all those people having to learn new skills on the fly to figure out computer programs they never thought about before but suddenly have to master. Instructors teaching skills that really need to be taught “hands-on” and coming up with ways to do the impossible.

People who don’t give up when they have every right to do so.

I see God empowering, inspiring, leading, giving passion to, all those people we trust to be there, when maybe they’d rather be on the receiving end rather than summoning up compassion that ran out or energy that they don’t have. Because somehow, despite a lot of evidence, they still believe that we are called to be people of hope and compassion and kindness and intelligence. When I can’t see God in the questions that can’t be answered, I look “on the ground.” All around me. To the communities that start GoFundMes for someone who can’t pay their exorbitant hospital bills, or organize food to be brought to the exhausted caregiver who’s trapped in her home, caring for a loved one. I see God in the relentless passion of people who want to see good in the world, so they go out there and embody it. The people who lift up those who may have given up.

I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone. We’re no longer surprised at the news of another disaster or trauma. We’ve come to expect it. But if nothing else, I’ve opened my eyes to see God where I didn’t look for God before. EVERYWHERE around me.

And I pray others can see God in me too.

Breathing Again

Saturday evening, November 7th, my husband and daughter and I crowded on the reclining loveseat, practically in each other’s laps. We laughed out loud as we watched crowds of people dancing in the streets in New York City, Wilmington, Washington, D.C. and various other cities across the nation. We all watched silently, except for a sudden outburst of laughter. Not that anything was funny. Not at all. It was oxygen moving in my lungs again, it was a lightness of being, a huge burden shoved off of my heart. When was the last time I’d laughed? When had I dared to feel any hope? Dear God, it felt good. That night I slept deeper than I have in years.

On the morning of November 9, 2016, I headed into the day with a deep sense of depression. I had to work, I had to stay focused, but that day I felt like there was a boot on my neck pushing harder each moment. A friend of mine told me not to take it so hard, and certainly not take it so personally. It was just an election.

No, it wasn’t. They didn’t understand.

I didn’t know the full extent of the weight of those four years until Saturday night after this year’s election. I didn’t cry, but there are tears there somewhere. For the last four years I’ve carried weights in my chest that I couldn’t put down. Friends didn’t understand. “It’s not about you,” they said. But it was. Every time I saw that man on TV, talking to America like an abused lover/spouse, it triggered the pain. He put women down, he laughed about abusing them, doing whatever he wanted, because he knew he could always get away with it. He laughed and strutted around, daring anyone to challenge him. Whenever a woman did challenge him, he got into their space, tried to intimidate them and dismissed them as just angry bitches. “Pocahantas,” calling them names, reducing and belittling them.

And I remembered again and again, working for a senior pastor for two years. Behind closed doors, he berated me, challenged me, reminded me that he was always better than me. He tried to pry into my personal life, said sexually inappropriate things to me, and continually told me how powerful and respected he was. In public, he put his arm around me and acted like my best buddy. He put on a front to the congregation that all was well. When something upset him, he threw things and lost his temper. He put people down in private and charmed them to their faces.

There were days I was afraid of him. Afraid of making him angry. Afraid of being alone with him. When I succeeded and other people complimented me, he took me into the office and angrily told me that he was better, he would always be better than me.

He played golf with our District Superintendent, and knew how to grease palms so that others supported him, despite whatever it was about him that unsettled them. They made excuses for him. When I complained to our boss about the senior pastor, he condescendingly, patted my back. “You’re just being too sensitive.” “‘J’ is just a hothead, don’t take him seriously,” and he laughed. He laughed. I was anxious all the time. When I preached in front of him, I knew the better I did, the worse would be the talking-down after church. I was physically anxious all the time, sick to my stomach. It didn’t take much to reduce me to tears or send me off into a rage myself at home, as my nerves were so close to the surface.

“Just stand up to him,” our DS said, chuckling. Right. Just stand up to him.

These four years of hearing the president speak, mock, belittle, strut, challenge and brag about his greatness and power, often sent me back to that office as an associate pastor where many days I locked my door and cried.

He could do whatever he wanted. All his sins didn’t matter. Because no one is perfect, after all.

It sent me back to that church where my husband and I pastored for one year, brought in after the pastor of 18 years had been abruptly removed for sexual misconduct. He had sex with a parishioner. In the parsonage. In the church office. In the sanctuary. In a hotel. A few brave souls told us things about him that led up to the big Reveal. He told a Sunday School class that men are entitled to get sex anywhere they can if their wife isn’t putting out at home. No one challenged him.

He was charismatic, charming, and the women found him attractive. He was larger than life and he “did great things for the church.” When we moved in, hoping to help heal, we found many of them didn’t want to heal. They wanted their pastor back. It was the woman’s fault. Sure, the quilting group saw her go to the parsonage and throw a stone at the pastor’s office window and then disappear into the house. Men will be men, they said. They knew. They knew she was a minority in a very white town, a single mom, and vulnerable. The pastor was abusing his power, putting her at his mercy. But it was ok. She seduced him.

Bombastic declarations, the bragging of being able to do anything and his people would not stop supporting him… our hands were tied at that church. We lived in the house where the pastor had lived for 18 years. There was a fist-sized hole in the closet, a hole in the office window. Young women called the parsonage in the middle of the night, looking for our predecessor. I’d never believed in haunted houses, but that house felt dirty and ugly and I could never relax. There was anger and brokenness and deceit in the air. The house needed healing.

I am lucky. I am married to a man who is my best friend, who loves me for who I am, and encourages me to be myself. He’s more than I ever felt I deserved. He has never been threatened by my gifts or my assertiveness, and has never felt dulled when I shined. I’m not abused.

But the sound of that voice on TV every day, or on the internet, his in-your-face narcissism and macho bravado triggered feelings of anxiety, nausea and rage.

For the first 25 years of my life I lived with a man who believed that women were secondary, and much weaker than men. He told me again and again that I was “too sensitive, too emotional” and irrational. He literally pushed tranquilizers in my mouth when I got angry and tried to subdue me. Whenever I did well, he reminded me that he was the best, that I would never be as good as him, as smart as him, or ever as in control as him. When I did have the guts to challenge him, he said, “How DARE you! Do you know WHO I AM?? I’m a very important person!”

He questioned my sanity repeatedly over the years. He made me doubt my own sense of reality, my perceptions, so that I didn’t trust myself. I was always anxious and afraid, sick to my stomach, chewing Maalox tablets and downing the tranquilizers he offered me.

My marriage and my life since then has been very healing and I’ve grown quite a bit, despite some of my experiences in the Church that triggered my worst doubts and fears, my deepest despair. I’m in a safe place now. I have a good life with my husband and daughter and others who love me.

But.

I can’t imagine what women who ARE abused by their spouses have felt these last four years. How stressful and anxious they must have felt when faced with the leader of our nation, on TV, bragging about his power over women, publicly shaming them, and admittedly abusing them. How confusing it must have felt for them when many Christians embraced him as appointed by God. This man who so degrades women and who holds many people hostage with some unknown threats and warnings behind closed doors.

I just know that these four years have been exhausting for me. I spent so much time being angry, anxious, tired, defensive. It wasn’t just about politics at all. It WAS personal for every woman who ever had to face an arrogant bully who tried to reduce her to tears and then shame her for her tears, shame her for her anger at being put down.

Saturday night my heart was dancing in the streets with all those black, brown, white and whatever color of people expressing spontaneous joy and HOPE. Not because Joe Biden is the Messiah. He’s just a good, kind, intelligent, compassionate human being who is willing to get into the fray of our broken country and try to help us heal. To help us be decent again. To help us be whole again and kind and just and to work together. His leadership is only a beginning.

And we can begin to start over again. And to leave our nightmares behind.

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?

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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.